Is Serbia’s energy policy bringing about grave health costs due to its unsustainable energy policy?
There’s a couple problems Serbia’s demographic trend is facing. For one, the size of the population is shrinking at an alarming rate, at around 40,000 less people each year. This is mostly attributed to an old citizenry and high migration rates, as well as high levels of stress, and having kids at an older age.
Secondly, this relatively small country has some of the highest rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease in the world. This is partially due to the leftover radioactive depleted uranium that can still be found across the land, which was brought by NATO bombs during the war in 1999.
Dr. Dragica Grujicic, the Head of the Department of Neurological Medicine at the Clinic of Serbia, says the rate of cancer in this country is 2.5 times higher than the global rate.
“In the world, the rate of cancer is about 2,000 for every million, but here it is 5,500. And the most affected areas are Kosovo and the area around Vranje, where there was the most impact [by the bombs]. The other parts of Serbia aren’t protected either, because uranium dust spreads easily, even to areas that weren’t bombed,” she says.
She goes on to point the finger at the government for not having taken enough action to clean the land from this poisonous substance.
However, not everybody agrees that uranium is such a big culprit. Dr. Ana Jovicevic, an epidemiologist from the Institute for Oncology and Radiology, says: “The high numbers can be attributed to lifestyle changes. The USA and developed European countries started implementing preventative programs such as banning smoking, propagating a healthy lifestyle and physical activity, as well as reducing damage by industrialization, much sooner than we did.”
One thing both these doctors seem to be arguing is that there is more the government can do to make people healthier.
Around the world, governments are waking up to their responsibility in ensuring their citizen’s health. Even in the USA, which once proudly spoke of small government and praised the private system for health insurance, now has ObamaCare, a state-funded health care system. So why should the government get involved in people’s health?
Beside the moral aspect, health is after all a social issue. For a country to meet its developmental goals, it needs a healthy strong people to work, engage in the economy, reproduce, take up arms in defense if necessary, etc.
Looking closer into the moral aspect, in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) ‘World Health Report 2013: Research for universal health coverage,’ the WHO argued that everyone should have access to quality health care services and that this requires a “strong, efficient, well-run health care system”. They also argued that this cannot be achieved without proper scientific research.
So what is Serbia’s health care system like? In 2012 and 2013, the country ranked as having the worst one in Europe, as it got last, 35th, place in the European Health Consumer Index (EHCI). Last year, it ranked 30th, showing some progress. The report states that this is partially due to the new government’s decision to appoint the Chairperson of the organization “Doctors Against Corruption” as Special Adviser to the Ministry of Health.
However, other aspects of the system remain problematic. The most telling of these is very long waiting periods for surgery and checkups, especially in the oncology department. On average, patients wait between 6 and 8 months for these, often urgent, services. A lot of the equipment is also outdated and short in supply, as are doctors. For years, Serbia has not had enough practicing physicians, as qualified persons migrate in huge numbers. The majority go to Germany, Slovenia and Scandinavian countries where they have a higher pay, more benefits and a higher overall standard of living than Serbia can offer.
Most telling of all, public campaigns to raise money for individuals in need have become very commonplace. Most frequently, it is parents looking for money to send their children off to hospitals in Germany or the USA. They ask the public through tabloid newspapers to send texts and donations to cover the high costs of transport and lodging, and sometimes the procedures as well (although these are at times free). They have had varying levels of success, but ultimately lead people to ask the question – ‘why can’t we cure ourselves at home?’
Having, therefore, failed to secure even the most basic treatment facilities, it would seem preventative measures become even more crucial. However, the government hasn’t lived up to its promises in this department in the past. For example, a third of the country’ s population smokes, yet a ban on smoking in public places never went through, despite being talked about for years. Just this February, an article titled “For or Against: A ban on smoking in public places?” was released in one of Serbia’s biggest tabloids, Blic, where the argument against it was that “[Serbia] is a smoking nation,” and the slippery slope argument of “does this mean the next step is them coming into our homes and telling us how to live?”
However, if anti-smoking laws were to be enforced, it would still likely lead to a decrease in smoking rates, as it has in the past in other so called “smoking nations,” such as the UK or USA. As it is now widely accepted that smoking has a direct link to lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, it would stand to reason a government trying to make its country healthier would do all it could to minimize the spreading of the habit.
Another big factor in preventative health care is the environment. Air, water and land contamination rates in Serbia are much higher than their more ecologically conscious EU neighbors allow. These rates are mostly attributed to a very outdated energy policy, wherein coal is dug at all costs with very little thought being given to long-term consequences. Other aspects include very poor waste and water waste management.
“We have a long history of not caring about the environment,” says Mirko Popovic, project coordinator from the Belgrade Open School, a non-governmental educational organization.
“One of the reasons is that we are a poor, developing country and we’ve always looked at the environment as something to serve the economy and bring the economic resources we need”.
So what is Serbia’s energy policy?
It would seem unhinged, unsustainable growth is of top priority to the government. Without much consideration for the environment, a few years ago Serbia signed a deal with China for an expansion of the Kostolac power plant. The deal is worth over $600 million and has been highly disputed for its illegal endangering of Romanian land, due to being so close to the border.
“Cities like Uzice, Valjevo, Kraljevo, they have problems so bad people can’t walk outside from the pollution,” says Popovic.
It’s true. In Uzice, a town to the west and nearby one of Serbia’s most beloved mountains, Zlatibor, air pollution is so bad doctors recommend windows remain closed and people stay in their homes. This winter, Valjevo, another western city, had its highest air pollution in years at nine times the legal limit of soot. Kraljevo, on the other hand, can’t even use the water in the river Ibar for doing laundry, how contaminated it is.
The reason for this kind of pollution are the many factories in the area, as well as poorly kept sewage systems. The river Ibar alone is polluted by more than 250 industrial plants and waste from 40 different cities and villages.
And the price for this is high. According to a 2010 WHO report, “Economic cost of deaths from air pollution (outdoor and indoor) per country, as a percentage of GDP”, 33.5% of Serbia’s GDP goes to covering health costs related to this type of pollution alone. That is a very high price to pay indeed.
Djordje Samardzija, from the NGO “Jedan Stepen Srbija” (One Degree Serbia), which tackles climate change and pollution in the country, finds this fact ridiculous.
“The excuse for not investing in the environment is that we’re poor. But maybe we’re poor because we’re not investing in the environment, maybe that’s the solution,” he says. “Because if 33% of our GDP goes to covering costs related to air pollution, maybe that’s exactly what we need to solve and then we will all be richer. There are both moral and economic reasons to have a more sustainable policy”.
Still, change would take time. As Samardzija says: “Nobody is saying that [the system] should be changed overnight, because it took years and decades to build, and that means something. But a healthy economic and energy politic would surely mean transitioning to renewable sources of energy”.
The problem of course, is that renewable sources of energy tend to be expensive. It is much cheaper in the short term to indiscriminately dig for coal than it is to build new
“Here there’s that wrong assumption, that wrong thinking, about the price of energy, which is that solar energy is expensive. It is, when you compare it to the subsidized price of coal” says Samardzija. “But if you count in the 4 billion euros of added health costs from the production of electric energy from power plants, that price isn’t 5 euro cents, it’s 26 euro cents [per kilowatt], and that’s significantly costlier than the price from solar panels.”
Furthermore, Serbia really does have the natural potential. Especially when it comes to solar energy.
“Considering that the price [of solar panels] is constantly dropping, it’s not longer a question of should we or shouldn’t we, but whether we have enough sunlight, whether we have enough of that resource. In Germany, let me tell you, a huge amount of households has solar panels installed, and they have 40% less sunny days than Serbia,” points out Samardzija, noting that the country doesn’t lack in ability, but will.
It also shouldn’t be a matter of lack of funds. After all, the government is obligated to secure pots of money solely for green purposes.
However, misuse of these resources is also common. Often, these funds don’t even get used up. When they do, they don’t always have much to do with protecting the environment.
As Popovic says: “What is spent, is spent in the most ridiculous ways, which have no direct connection with protecting the environment. Maybe the best example of that is that they were used for maintenance of the zoo in [the city] Jagodina. And you know what the explanation is? That is very original. The protection of biodiversity. Because there are giraffes there, so you know.”
The funds that don’t get used up are simply transferred to the next year. This means that it isn’t even a case of simply not having the money because Serbia is a ‘poor country,’ as it is often said. It is a case of poor management and unfocused governing, showing a lack of motivation in the department.
“We have a very weak ministry [the Ministry for Agriculture and Environmental Protection]. We have a ministry that doesn’t have enough administrative capacities,” says Mirko Popovic. “And on top of that, is in charge of four huge areas, which are economy, forests, water and protecting the environment”.
With a ministry with little power and a lot of responsibility, handling day to day activities certainly becomes difficult. Other countries, which take sustainable development more seriously, organize these responsibilities better. For example, Sweden has a whole ministry dedicated just to this cause, the Ministry of the Environment and Energy, who’s sole duty are the government’s environmental, energy and climate policies.
“It’s not that Sweden has such high living standards because Swedes are better people” says Popovic. “Not at all, it is just that someone actually implemented laws over there.”
This brings about the next issue. Despite having introduced good environmental laws, based off European Union guidelines and standards, Serbia doesn’t enforce these. Granted, this isn’t only a problem in environmental law and spans across the board, but it certainly affects this field as well.
“[Serbian society] has gotten used to acting irresponsibly. [It] has gotten used to not having to respect laws. In this city people are still throwing trash out their windows,” says Popovic.
The other problem is transparency. “There’s not a single public debate about the environment,” says Popovic, who looked into transparency in environmental policy as part of a workshop this May, titled: “How can civil society organizations contribute to a transparent and participatory process to the negotiations regarding [the negotiating chapter related to the environment for joining the EU] Chapter 27”.
“Most of the information is not available,” he says, and goes on to explain what happened when a law about protecting the environment was scheduled for a public hearing. “The public hearing about this law happened in July of 2015. That is also very interesting, that those hearings happen in July and August, it’s clear to you what the motive for having those hearings in July and August is,” suggesting they are purposefully held at the slowest time of the year, when many people are on vacation.
“They are always held in the minimum provided time frame [15 days], never longer than that, and it’s very common for there to be more than one law at these hearings at a time”.
He goes on to say that these laws are huge, involving a lot of material. “Whoever wants to seriously devote themselves to going through it, can’t even go through one law in 15 days, much less three at a time”.
A side effect of lack of transparency, as well as Serbia’s long history of corruption, is that people become aware, and therefore expect it. This makes trusting the government difficult, and how could be expected to ask something of a government they believe they should be protecting themselves from?
“I honestly find it difficult when I go work on the field, and I work in the field a lot, it is very hard for me to explain to regular people why what I do is important,” says Mirko Popovic. “On one side, there is a lot of distrust towards those who are making decisions, on the other side, there’s a big distrust towards organizations of civil society,” says Mirko Popovic.
So what needs to change? Ultimately, either people will rise up first and demand something more, or the government will truly change its policies and include the public in the decision making process. Alternatively, nothing will change, and everybody will lose. Which one it’ll be, only time will tell.