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?
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.
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.