A contaminated life
The environment is targeted by polluters in Kosovo.
Despite the overwhelmingly difficult consequences in many sectors, the months-long lockdown at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic gave the environment a brief break from pollution. The restriction of movements and stoppage of various economic activities limited the possibility of pollution. Nevertheless, freedom from pollution was short lived.
The pollution reduction was a byproduct of the movement restrictions, while the institutions continue to neglect environmental protection. Human activity and large scale industries that operate as public enterprises or are licensed by the state continue to be the primary source of pollution in Kosovo.
These issues are at the center of this photo essay that aims to document the environmental pollution and degradation caused by different industries supported directly or indirectly by the state. State negligence can best be noticed in the following locations, which risk being invisible to many while posing a daily challenge for those living in them.
Quarries breaking the law
Waking up in the morning from the noise of the quarries’ machinery and the dust they create is an everyday routine for the residents of Carraleva village in the municipality of Shtime.
They coexist with two quarries located close to their residences, where the distance to the nearest house is 108 meters. According to the villagers, besides the acoustic pollution, quarry machinery pollutes the air with dust and the Carraleva river with the spillover of machinery maintenance oils.
Over the years, villagers have complained about the dust from the work of the quarries, but their complaints have proven unsuccessful in stopping the operation of these companies.
A report published by Democratic Institute of Kosovo in February 2020 states that over 200 quarries are currently operating in Kosovo. The Law on Mines and Minerals and the Law on Environmental Impact Assessment clearly define the environmental standards set for the quarries in order to protect human health and the environment. However, many of these quarries do not respect the legal restrictions on their impact on the environment during their work. In most cases, the violations have to do with the minimum distance that the quarries should maintain with local homes and rivers.
Over 200 quarries are currently operating in Kosovo, many of which do not respect the legal restrictions on their impact on the environment during their work.
Rivers of exploiters
The uncontrolled sand and gravel mining by illegal miners has resulted in the complete damage of river beds, including the Lumbardhi in Peja, turning it into small ponds with destroyed biodiversity. As if gravel mining was not enough, different economic operators discharge industrial wastewater into rivers, produced mainly by asphalt producers, the food, and scrap metal industries, and more.
Excessive and uncontrolled exploitation of the river has disrupted the ecological balance of nature — specifically damaging the river bed — which increases the risk of floods during atmospheric precipitation. Moreover, the pollution from the dust of the gravel processing machinery has destroyed the surrounding flora.
Data from the organization ÇOHU show that around 1,100 hectares of Kosovo rivers are degraded areas. The most damaged river is the White Drina, the longest in the country flowing throughout the entire Dukagjini region; then comes the Lumbardhi flowing in the municipality of Peja and Erenik in Gjakova.
Living surrounded by garbage on all sides is an everyday experience for the residents of Ali Ibra (the former Kolonia) neighborhood in the municipality of Gjakova. For many years now, they have shared their neighborhood with a massive municipal dump that increases daily.
This dump takes all the waste collected during the day by the Regional Waste Company (RWC) “Çabrati,” reaching up to 80 or 90 tons. From July of this year, the daily amount of waste gets transferred within 24 hours by the same company to the Sanitary Landfill in Landovica village in Prizren.
There are 2,529 illegal landfills identified in Kosovo. They were created because of the low quality services of regional waste companies.
In conversation with the neighborhood residents, they seem satisfied with the intervention of the Directorate of Public Services of Gjakova to clean the garbage dump. However, they believe that this is insufficient to improve the environment where they live. This waste transfer station remains a risk due to the smell, soil contamination, fluid emissions, and attracting stray dogs, making it dangerous for citizens, especially children, to walk without the accompaniment of an adult.
The residents say that they verbally complained to the local institutions asking for the removal of waste and a different location for the waste transfer station. However, such a thing has not happened yet.
The data from the Agency for Environmental Protection in Kosovo show that in addition to this legal waste transfer station — that operates within the RWC “Çabrati” as the only one that collects, stores and transfers waste within the territory of Gjakova — in this municipality there are 118 illegal landfills, created by uncontrolled and illegal waste dumping. These landfills are different in size and types of waste collected.
According to the report Municipal Waste Management in Kosovo, published in 2019 by the Agency for Environmental Protection, there are 2,529 illegal landfills identified in Kosovo. They were created because of the low quality services of regional waste companies, mainly in rural areas. Another factor contributing to the creation of illegal landfills is the lack of awareness of citizens about the impact of the uncontrolled dumping of waste on the environment.
Life on contaminated land
In addition to household waste, there is also the so-called special waste. No functional collecting and disposal system is in place for this kind of waste, although this issue is regulated by the Law on Waste.
Among the largest areas polluted by heavy metals is Mitrovica Industrial Park.
Usually, the special waste comes from industries that were active in the previous socialist system and that are nonfunctional now, leaving behind a heavy metal industrial wasteland.
Among the largest areas polluted by heavy metals is Mitrovica Industrial Park, with a surface of 34.62 hectares only 15 to 20 meters from the river Sitnica, close to the city hospital and residential areas.
Industrial waste in this area contaminates the soil, pollutes the air, as well as surface and groundwater, with chemicals that are dangerous to the environment, the health of residents and the biodiversity of the area.
Within this industrial park is the accumulator battery factory, zinc metallurgy and chemical industry, located at the entrance of the city and extending along it. The space has not been functional since the ’90s and for a long time it has been used as a landfill for industrial waste that is estimated to be around 1,520,000 tons.
Lead is the main heavy chemical polluting this area, where its level exceeds 20 times the value allowed by the European Union. Its impact on children’s health is greater. According to the World Health Organization, lead produces a spectrum of impairments in a child’s body, including impacting cognitive abilities. Exposure to lead also causes anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity, and toxicity to the reproductive organs. The neurological effects of lead are considered irreversible.
Clean air is a basic need for a healthy life, but the residents of many cities in Kosovo perceive it as a privilege. During autumn and winter, the level of pollution increases significantly. The main causes are urban traffic, the energy industry, heating with fuels such as coal, wood, pellets and petroleum products.
Power plants Kosova A and Kosova B were among the largest air polluters in Kosovo in 2019. For almost the entire year they exceeded the limits of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and dust emissions.
As a consequence of the continuous pollution in Kosovo, within a year there are about 835 premature deaths.
As a consequence of the continuous pollution in Kosovo, within a year there are about 835 premature deaths due to diseases resulting from the high concentration of pollutants in the form of PM10 and PM2.5, which are solid particles or liquid droplets, differing in size and the duration of their stay in the air. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has categorized these pollutants as carcinogens.
The briefing paper, The unpaid health bill: How coal power plants in Kosovo make us sick by Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), emphasizes that of all the emitted pollutants, the most harmful to health are PM2.5 particles. It adds that Kosova A and Kosova B are the largest emitters in Europe, with a total of 7,500 PM2.5 tons per year. These power plants emit four times more PM2.5 than most of the coal power plants in the Balkans and unit 5 of the Kosova A power plant holds the record for emissions, with nine times more PM2.5 emitted than the average of all power plants in the Balkans.
Images: Leart Jusufi / K2.0.
This publication is part of the third cycle of the Human Rights Journalism Fellowship Program, supported by the European Union Office in Kosovo. The program is co-supported by the National Endowment for Democracy. This program is being implemented by Kosovo 2.0, in partnership with Kosovar Center for Gender Studies (KCGS), and Center for Equality and Liberty (CEL). Its contents are the sole responsibility of Kosovo 2.0 and do not necessarily reflect the views of the donors.