Blogbox | Environment

Against the ‘strategy for normalization’ of air pollution

Outside of winter, air pollution is shut away in drawers of collective oblivion.

In the last couple of years, we’ve seen a routine regarding air pollution in Prishtina. From April to September, we remain almost completely silent on air pollution in the capital, with the exception of some TV debates. In mid-October the situation starts to change: It becomes colder, and we start to consume more energy. Power plants increase their production capacity and so pollution levels increase.

From mid-October to March, there’s a state of emergency: endless publications of photos on social media displaying high levels of air pollution; TV debates with experts, members of civil society and institutional officials; protests in the streets; people wearing masks; and in the end everyone accepts the next resolution approved in the Kosovo Assembly, as well as a number of temporary measures taken by the Municipality of Prishtina.

When spring comes, things change again. The debate and any actions in relation to air pollution disappear from public discourse. Pollution is no longer amongst us. The situation goes back to normal.

This is the ‘strategy of normalization’ that the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning (MESP) aims to practice continuously. Whenever people revolt against air pollution, MESP has to neutralize the protests by normalizing air pollution.

Three fundamental sequences show that resistance against air pollution should be transformed into a 24/7, year-round endeavor against a Ministry that aims to manage a crisis by normalizing it.

First sequence: Forgotten agreements

In February 2017 in Prishtina, the government and the EU Commission held the first meeting of the Sub-committee for Transport, the Environment, Energy, Climate and Regional Development, in accordance with the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA).

Both parties reached an agreement on four points regarding air pollution, which boil down to four elementary tasks for the Government of Kosovo — specifically MESP.

The first was approving the Action Plan for Air Pollution 2017-19, which both parties agreed upon. According to the agreement, this task should have been completed in the third quarter of 2017, namely by the end of September 2017. Although this strategy is in the virtual drawers of MESP, it remains an aspirational wishlist.

The second was Installing central software for monitoring air pollution in real time. This second task was due to be completed in the first quarter of 2018. Although two months late, in May the Kosovo Environmental Protection Agency (KEPA) notified citizens that the system for monitoring air pollution in real time had been installed and published online.

However, there are many question marks regarding the system. First of all, the system is still in the testing phase, so the data within it is not correct or credible. Secondly, the online page resembles a ’90s internet web page, rather than a serious modern system. Thirdly, the system does not even fulfill the minimum standards for notifying citizens in real time about the air they breathe. Fourthly, there is no information about the monitoring methodology, sensor typology, etc.

It seems to be more a task completed to fulfil an obligation for bureaucratic reports, rather than work conducted to positively change the situation in the field.

The third task for Kosovo’s government, as agreed with the EU, was monitoring air quality in real time throughout Kosovo for six consecutive months and publishing data online, as well as submitting data to the European Commission. MESP was due to complete this task by the third quarter of 2017.

The data has belatedly been partially published on KEPA’s official page, however as explained above, fundamentally it is not being published in real time, and the published data is not credible, bearing in mind the recommendations of the EU Progress Reports from 2014 until the present day.

The fourth and final task was for MESP to identify sources of air pollution and to immediately implement measures for reducing it. MESP was due to complete the former by the third quarter of 2017 and the latter by the fourth quarter of 2017. Again, the Science for Change Movement has been unable to find any documents or publications on the official web pages of MESP on AMMK in relation to this task.

But the tale of unfulfilled agreements doesn’t end there. In March 2018 in Prishtina, the Government of Kosovo and the EU held the second meeting of the Sub-committee for Transport, the Environment, Energy, Climate and Regional Development in accordance with the Stabilisation and Association Agreement. Most likely, the meeting should have served as a kind of evaluation of the work of MESP regarding their duties.

The EU stated in a press release: “On the environment, the Commission expressed concern at the very limited progress in this area which is of great importance to Kosovo citizens and the quality of their health and lives. In particular, the Commission again expressed concern at the limited progress on air quality monitoring and asked for implementation of immediate measures to reduce the levels of air pollution, as was also requested by the Assembly in February 2018.” This not only shows the working dynamic of MESP and KEPA, but it also brings us to the second sequence, which merits a short analysis.

Second sequence: Forgotten resolutions

During December 2017 and January 2018, Prishtina experienced one its most polluted periods. U.S. Embassy data, as well as measurements taken by the Science for Change Movement, showed extraordinary levels of pollutions. This incited the citizens to mobilize and protest against air pollution in unprecedented numbers. As such, in February 2018, the Kosovo Assembly and the Municipal Assembly of Prishtina approved resolutions against air pollution.

The resolution approved by the Kosovo Assembly includes 19 concise points that could serve as a good starting point for the work of MESP. There is no space here for dealing with each point one by one, but some of them are very measurable, if they are applied.

The Kosovo Assembly should seek accountability from MESP regarding implementation of the resolution against air pollution.

For example, there is point 4: “Provide technical control of the quality of fuels and gas according to the laws in force and provide the necessary capacities by the end of the first six months of 2018 to guarantee quality control.” Although we have reached the end of the first half of 2018, there is no available information regarding this point.

Therefore, the Kosovo Assembly should seek accountability from MESP regarding implementation of the resolution against air pollution.

There is also a tendency, which MESP is utilizing in an outstanding way, for making these documents sound good, but having them remain as sounds, rather than translating them into concrete and practicable actions in the field. Right after the resolution was approved and the Municipality of Prishtina took temporary measures, the revolt was halted and the situation went back to normal.

It is documents like the resolution against air pollution, the recommendations of the EU Progress Report, or the agreements within SAA that should be utilized by citizens as part of a continuous and coherent revolt. We should not allow these documents to be used — by the main people responsible for this situation — as tools for normalizing the revolt.

Third sequence: Findings of the Auditor General

In May 2018, Kosovo’s National Audit Office, the highest monitoring institution for economic and financial issues, which enjoys functional, financial and operative independence in accordance with the Constitution and applicable laws, published an interesting performance report titled ‘Institutional Mechanisms for Legally Regulating, Monitoring and Reporting Air Quality.’

This report, which oddly did not feature too much in the public discourse, was a sort of validation of all the recommendations regarding air quality that have been given in EU Progress Reports since 2014. It analysed the performance of three key institutions that work with issues relating to the environment and monitoring air quality: MESP, KEPA and the Hydrometeorology Institute of Kosovo (MMPH).

Without going into an in-depth analysis of the Auditor General’s report, four main points regarding air quality stand out.

The first field analysed by the Auditor General was the legal structure that regulates a number of preconditions for air quality. The Auditor’s main concluding regarding the legal structure is as follows: “The Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning has not established all necessary legal prerequisites to regulate the air quality in Kosovo, and has not updated the entire necessary legal framework according to the current condition of the air quality in the country.”

The second field examined by the Auditor General was air quality monitoring and reporting. The Auditor’s findings are negative: “Only 17% of monitoring stations have been operational for the most part during 2017, while 33% of stations have been out of service for more than 7 months during the year. Moreover, these stations were relocated several times, reporting was irregular and incomplete, security and constant monitoring of monitoring stations is missing, and is also missing the central system for collection and processing of data generated by monitoring stations.”

The third concerning finding of the Auditor General’s Office was related to the dysfunctionality of monitoring stations in areas that are characterized by high levels of air pollution. “What is concerning during 2017 is the fact that there are still monitoring stations that are situated in areas that are characterized by high air pollution (such as Palaj in Obiliq, Hani i Elezit, Gjilan) which had no data on some of the parameters for over 6 months during the year. The station located in Palaj of Obiliq is important to have data reporting throughout the year, as it is located in the vicinity of the air polluter [Kosova B power plant]. While in 2016 and 2017, this station has been characterized by major shortcomings in data reporting.”

The fourth point that the Auditor General describes as very concerning is the lack of correct, transparent information in real time regarding air quality. “With this system of monitoring and reporting, citizens are not given a realistic picture of the situation of the air quality in the country, especially not in real time, and such system poses the risk of being ineffective and, without data … such irregularities in the system of monitoring and reporting of data make it difficult for decision-makers to identify concrete measures to be taken to improve the situation of the air quality.”

These four points do not represent the whole of the report, however they’re taken here as the main points that directly influence the situation regarding air pollution that Prishtina, but also Kosovo, finds itself in today.

Lastly, we would like to remind the Government of Kosovo, and particularly MESP, that the first point of the resolution, which has been approved by the Kosovo Assembly, states: “Environment protection to be a state priority of the Government of the Republic of Kosovo.”

The resolution ends with its 19th point, which states: “In case the Government of Kosovo fails to implement the proposed measures, the Kosovo Assembly should initiate procedures for amending Article 52 of the Kosovo Constitution so that the right to fresh air and clean water be included as a human right guaranteed by the Constitution.

The Science for Change Movement will monitor the work of MESP regarding air quality in detail, and if in the following months MESP does not take any concrete steps to improve the situation, the Science for Change Movement will be forced to advocate in the Assembly — to the Committee on Agriculture, Forestry, Rural Development, Environment and Spatial Planning, as well as other responsible institutions — to initiate procedures for amending Article 52 of the Kosovo’s Constitution.

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.