Feature Story

Coming up for clean air in Bosnia and Herzegovina

January 2, 2018

House in forested valley with two air quality monitoring stations in foreground
UN Environment is installing and renovating air quality monitoring stations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, such as this one on Ivan Sedlo mountain outside Sarajevo (Photo by Dejan Miholjcic for UN Environment)

The Dayton Accords reached 22 years ago heralded an era of peace for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Yet the country is now estimated to be the second deadliest in the world for another killer, responsible for more lives lost worldwide than any war – air pollution.

Electricity produced from coal can appear cheap in the short-term. It has been seen by many to be a development opportunity. The electricity is even exported to neighbouring countries.

Yet what price does cheap and dirty energy place on people’s health, the environment and development?

Pollution exodus

Tuzla is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s largest coal power station. Lignite, the dirtiest form of coal, is heated to several hundred degrees Celsius as it roars into action. The heat and steam produced turns a generator to produce electricity. At the same time, the plant releases 51,000 tonnes of toxic sulphur dioxide and other pollutants into the air each year, just across the road from a primary school in the town of Divkovići.

Air pollution such as from this coal power plant is contributing to respiratory diseases and heart problems, cancer and asthma. In Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole, 44,000 years of life are lost each year due to particulate matter or nitrogen dioxide - such as that produced in Tuzla - or ozone pollution. More broadly, air pollution eats over 21.5 per cent of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s GDP through lost work and school days, healthcare and fuel costs for example.

Filters are used on Tuzla coal plant’s towers. Yet once expired, these are disposed of at the disposal site together with the putrid pollution they collect. Winds can therefore pick up and scatter ash pollution onto nearby homes in Divkovići – whose centre is just 1.5 kilometres away.

Meanwhile, near the coal plant, waste ash and coal slag from the plant are pumped into vast landfill sites that stretch as far as the eye can see.  

Vast amounts of water must be added to pump the waste to these sites. As a result, what was once farmland nearby now resembles a swamp. A house that a family once called home is also partially slumped into the ground, out of bounds due to a landslide. Heavy metals from the waste are seeping into nearby rivers, while even more chemicals are added to stop pipes from being clogged, causing the flooded space to gleam a dystopian, almost fluorescent blue. “It looks even brighter in the summer,” reveals Denis Zisko, Energy and Climate Change Coordinator at Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Centre of Ecology and Energy, as he guides us through the safest path to take a look.

Construction material reveals that the coal plant is set for expansion. “We pay for this with our health,” Denis says.

Near to coal plants such as Tuzla, locals are presented with the dilemma of whether to stay close to the polluted environment or pack their bags.

“People have left this town – for the graveyard… soon no one will live here” a local told international media reporting on pollution here. Reports suggest that the local population has been decimated from 500 to around 30 residents.

“This town was once the largest producer of roses in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Blaško Iveljić, who lives a short walk away from the toxic landfill, tells us with some pride. Yet after once caring for adjacent land and even raising sheep and cattle here, he since saved money to ensure his family could move out and buy a flat away from the pollution.

A thin layer of ash coats some of the courgettes stretching across Iveljic’s garden, while the air increasingly rakes at our throats and stings our eyes. Pollution has made Tuzla’s toxic surroundings feel uninhabitable.

Not just harmful fumes: The Tuzla coal plant produces coal waste ash and coal slag that are dumped in landfill sites closed to people’s homes (Photo by Dejan Miholjcic for UN Environment)

School term cut short

In the Bosnia-Herzegovian capital of Sarajevo, safe limits of particulate matter are often exceeded for 60-90 days a year, sometimes reaching up to 200 days.

Rather than industry, heavy traffic, poor spatial planning, solid-fuel based heating and natural factors are to blame for the poor air quality.

Soaring pollution levels in winter mean that school term is sometimes ended early - as has been the case at the city’s Environment Studies and Woodwork high school.

“I found out that school would be closed by watching the news. I was sort of happy not to go, but sad that this was due to air pollution,” says Amar, who studies horticulture there. “In winter, I don’t exercise outside. Sometimes it’s hard to even breathe,” he insists.

“My family leaves the city when the air gets too bad – normally for at least five or six days a year,” adds his classmate Samir, in what is a common escape for those that can afford it.

Powering a response

UN Environment’s Pollution report, issued ahead of the third Environment Assembly that took place under the same theme, recommends data sharing as part of the solution. In order to issue warnings for citizens to evade pollution or measure the effectiveness of actions to counter it, robust data is needed that can be easily shared.

Air quality monitoring stations being installed or refurbished by UN Environment and the Global Environment Facility, with data accessible in real-time online, can therefore make a real difference.

“Five to seven years ago, people were not even talking about air pollution here,” notes Enis Omerčić, air quality specialist at a hydro meteorological institute, at the Ivan Sedlo station outside Sarajevo.

Now, awareness and desire for change is growing.

Air pollution is increasingly on the lips of politicians and news reporters. Fresh efforts to raise awareness on the impacts of air pollution in Bosnia and Herzegovina and stimulate solutions will also take place under the UN Air Quality Initiative and Response.

AirQ software will provide data linking air pollution types with specific health effects, helping drive policy responses. New air quality monitoring stations are also planned for urban areas and the country considering joining the Breathe Life campaign.

UN Environment’s Pollution report also points to inadequate administrative capacity and a lack of political will as gaps seen in the fight to beat pollution. 

Until now, “the costs of health, economic and ecosystem losses have not been given due attention in policy creation,” one Entity’s Environment Minister Edita Ɖapo admitted at the ‘Clean air for all’ conference convened by UN Environment in October.

Path for action

The air quality resolution agreed on agreed by countries at the UN Environment Assembly aims to improve data quality and create the conditions for clean energy and transport, unleashing sustainable development.

UN Environment is called on to help countries put in place affordable air quality networks and raise awareness, and to support countries in identifying, prioritizing and addressing key sources of air pollution.

While much remains to be done, this has already started on the ground in in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Heating for homes and businesses is one of the biggest energy guzzlers in the country.

UN Environment is therefore helping the country’s second-largest city - Banja Luka - to switch their heating system from heavy oil to renewables, as part of a project under the District Heating in Cities Initiative.

The transition will see ten biomass boilers installed, slashing harmful sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide emissions by over 90 per cent while saving almost €1 million in fuel costs each year.

History shows that catastrophes involving enormous environmental damage can lead to their prevention and even significant improvements in air quality, noted Christer Johansson, a special advisor to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, at the Clean Air for All event.

“Many people suffer from air pollution here,” recognizes Harun, who has nearly completed his studies at Sarajevo’s environment and woodwork high school. “We need to bring change”.


This story was originally published by UN Environment