Annual flooding in the Balkans has become a sign of the region’s vulnerability to climate change. What are people and governments doing about it? Ivana Kazazovic reports.
Rain that was meant to fall over the course of three months inundated parts of the Balkans in just three days. Cities such as Obrenovac in Serbia and Doboj in Bosnia and Herzegovina were temporarily wiped off the map in May of 2014. That year, Germanwatch rated Serbia the country most vulnerable to climate change, with Bosnia close behind in third place.
“It’s a complicated metric. All sorts of things are measured, including damage on the economy, and the number of people dying [as a result of weather events],” says Djordje Samardzija of Jedan Stepen Srbija (One Degree Serbia), an NGO concerned with climate change in the country.
The floods brought death and destruction. They ruined homes, schools, hospitals and made arable land unworkable. It was the biggest flood in the region in a hundred years, prompting people to refer to them as “Biblical”. The scene has, on a smaller scale, been repeated in the years since.
Paradoxically, what awaits the region is both an abundance of water, as well as a dangerous lack of it. Every spring, higher than average temperatures make the mountain snow melt sooner and at a quicker rate, leading to plentiful rain followed by months of borderline drought.
“Primarily, we are expecting bigger droughts,” says Mr. Samardzija. “When we talk about a four degree increase in temperature on a global level, it can seem like ‘Wow! Great! It will be four degrees warmer!’ but those four degrees are on land and water alike, which means the land will be much warmer than that.”
Mr. Samardzija adds that this means summers in the region will be about six weeks longer. “Summer is already hellish as it is,. Six more weeks will disrupt the whole ecosystem”.
Droughts cause significant economic, environmental and social damage. Among other things, farmers lose business and food becomes more expensive. Droughts also damage the soil, can cause forest fires, and can endanger people’s well-being by causing health problems related to heat, dust and a lack of clean water.
“So that’s one side of the story with the droughts,” continues Mr. Samardzija. “The other is with the rainfall. On an annual level, the presumption is that there will be a decrease in the amount of rainfall. But there will also be a disruption. Instead of there being relatively constant precipitation, there will be big storms during which most of the rain will fall — which was the case in 2014, when a third of the year’s rain fell in three days,” he said.
“That’s really a cataclysm,” he adds. The reason is that there is less rain over the remainder of the summer, which is lengthening, causing more prolonged periods of drought.
Some people are trying to fight these challenges by changing small decisions they make on a day-to-day basis.
Milica Adamovic is an ecology student from Belgrade who, having attended an environmental film festival, left with a life changing decision.
“When I came out of that film [Cowspiracy], I didn’t feel good. I was shaking. I was with three of my friends, and they were sitting like this,” she said as she froze up with a frightened expression. “And I was crying, shaking and swearing, swearing… He [Kip Andersen, director of the film] went to these organizations of environmental protection that I love and follow, and I was swearing. Sitting and swearing, is this possible? Is it possible they’re [the heads of environmental protection organizations] so stupid?”
Ms. Adamovic has been a vegan for about seven months. This means she consumes no animal products of any kind — not meat, not eggs, nor dairy products and honey, and she avoids any clothing in whose production animals might have been involved.
Veganism can be difficult in Serbia. Not only does the country have a culture of meat and yogurt, but as a developing country there still isn’t as much variety in stores and supermarkets as you might find in the West, or their strict labeling policies.
“My dream is that one day a shop called Vegan will open up, where you can just go and buy anything,” she says.
Veganism has been growing around the globe, seen by the noticeable increase of vegan restaurants being opened in many countries, from the USA to Spain to New Zealand. At four percent of the population, Israel leads the way as the “vegan capital of the world,” while in the UK, one in eight individuals is a vegetarian or vegan. The trend is particularly spreading among young people below the age of 30.
So why are people making the switch?
It’s estimated that around 18% of green house gas emissions come from livestock, making them the biggest single contributor ahead of all cars and planes put together. The space they occupy, as well, is criticized as being plentiful as farmland takes up almost half of the planet, at 40%. Some suggest the land could more usefully be given over to rice or corn, which would improve the prospects of addressing world hunger. Furthermore, the livestock industry is notorious for its cruelty to animals.
So how much of an impact could one person eating less meat even have? After all, one less customer at the butcher’s counter won’t lead to one less chicken being killed.
However, one example in Denmark shows that there is a noticeable shift happening. The supermarket chain Coop has observed a standstill in the amount of meat being sold, while sales of protein alternatives, such as beans and nuts, are growing.
“Our expectation is that we will continue to see a fall in volume, but that those who continue to eat meat will go for better quality or, for example, a higher level of animal welfare,” said Thomas Roland, head of Coop’s responsibility department.
In Serbia, veganism might not have grown to be quite so large. The biggest Facebook group called “Vegan Kutak” has about 2,600 members. (For perspective, the group “Let’s forbid veganism in Serbia,” which seeks to “end the terror vegans bring to plants,” has 2,100 members).
Still, according to Ms. Adamovic, the country is still joining the overall global trend. “Every month there’s 20-30 new members [in the Facebook group], that’s something,” she says.
However, despite changing buying habits in supermarkets, the question remains: how much of an impact could vegans have on the real, palpable reality of the huge agricultural industry, wherein it causes enormous damage to the planet?
In an interview for the travel site Matador Network, author of “The Vegetarian Myth” and ex-vegan Lierre Keith, says “lifestyle is not politics,” and vegans won’t solve the problem of the agricultural industry.
“There are no personal solutions to political problems. Only political movements can confront and dismantle unjust systems of power,” she says.
Environmental activism has been around since the early 20th century, turning into radical environmentalism in the 90s when activists started taking more extreme action, like treesitting, where the protester sits on a tree preventing loggers from cutting it down. In this century, environmentalism has become a big part of political dialogue in the Western world, as left-wing political parties tend to align with green politics.
In Serbia, however, this trend has not gained much traction. Despite the visible impacts of climate change on the region, such as the floods and longer, drier summers, whether global warming is real is still disputed.
For example, Velimir Ilic, a minister without portfolio (meaning he’s a minister without specific responsibilities, but holds the title of minister), made an interesting statement this year. He was in charge of overseeing the management of the floods during the state of emergency, and when asked what caused them he said they were simply “God’s will”.
The president himself, Tomislav Nikolic, has made interesting statements in the past. In 2014, he said those catastrophic floods were caused because Serbia was “bit by a water snake”. He added: “[The rivers] woke up, bit, released their venom. And now they’re hushed again.”
In the 2015 UN Summit he somewhat changed his tune. He recognized that climate change is a real danger, but denied that Serbia, or indeed any developing country, should take any action.
“The responsibility for these developments [battling climate change] does not lie with those who combat poverty in their countries to create conditions for a life worthy of man. This responsibility does not lie with Serbia which opens soup kitchens to feed many their only daily meal. The responsibility does lie on those who have the most [meaning developed countries like the USA or UK, among others] irrespective of whether God gave or they gained it by the force they use to exploit other peoples [referring to, for example, colonial pasts of countries like the UK],” he said.
Later in 2015, at the COP21 UN Climate Change Conference, better known as the Paris conference, he changed his statement again. He stated that it is in fact possible for Serbia to reduce its emissions.
Djordje Samardzija, from Jedan Stepen Srbija, noticed the changes. He says President Nikolic was finally faced with the facts and figures of the problem of climate change, and had no choice but to change his stance.
“We in Serbia like to say we have character because we never change our minds, but if you actually are confronted with an exact science, that’s no longer character. I don’t have character if I don’t change my mind, I’m just insane,” he says.
On a global level, the Paris conference is regarded as the biggest climate change agreement ever. Its aim is to reduce emissions drastically, bringing them to 0 by 2050.
“To Serbia, this agreement is of particular importance, because the key thing of the Paris agreement and the fight against global warming is ending the exploitation of coal. The exploitation of coal is a key problem for modern society. That’s the core of the problem,” says Mirko Popovic, project coordinator at the Belgrade Open School, a non-profit educational organization.
“So we have to stop digging coal. To Serbia this is a particular problem because most of our electricity comes from coal. 70% is made from coal, or actually from lignite, which is of a much lower quality than other coal,” he adds.
He adds that Serbia is among the countries in the world with the highest rates of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease.
“The technology that would show a direct and unequivocal connection between producing coal from fossil fuels and these types of diseases doesn’t exist yet. But there has been some serious work, and some serious academic journals have concluded that it is in fact coal which causes these diseases,” he said.
The coal industry therefore not only pollutes the land, air and water, but leads to human lives being shorter. The Paris agreement, in that since, has the potential to drastically improve quality of life across the globe. 178 of the 197 UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) members have signed it, including Serbia, but only 19 have ratified it – meaning it has become part of local law.
Serbia is not one of the countries that have already ratified the Paris agreement. In fact, a pretty strange thing happened as Serbia submitted its plan for emissions reduction – known as the INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions).
“It’s humiliating. Serbia submitted a document where it said it will reduce emissions by 9,8% in relation to the base year of the Kyoto Protocol. However, when you do some math at the level of a third grader, you notice that a 9.8% decrease compared to 1990 is actually a 15% increase in comparison to 2013,” explains Mr. Popovic.
Back in 1990, the borders of the country were different. At the time, along with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Macedonia, Serbia constituted the much larger Yugoslavia, which has since broken up. Subsequently, the claim of independence by Kosovo made Serbia that bit smaller. Despite the fact that the government doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s independence and classifies it as an autonomous region of Serbia, data from the two large thermal plants placed there isn’t officially included as Serbian emissions.
“And that’s how we, with some fraudulent behavior, now say that we’re going to decrease our emissions, when actually we’ll be increasing them constantly,” concludes Mirko Popovic.
Without taking a closer look, EU officials praised Serbia openly as a leader in the region and an example to be followed because of this plan. Miguel Arias Canete, the EU Commissioner for Energy and Climate Action, shared a picture of the Serbian flag on Twitter saying just that, calling Serbia “leaders in the region, neighbors to follow soon”.
“When people told them, ‘hey do you understand what happened?’ they were like ‘no no no, we were praising that Serbia submitted a plan not what was in it,” says Djordje Samardzija. “I don’t think the European Commission will allow an embarrassment like that again”.
As a new document, the NDC (Nationally Determined Contributions) is due soon, the government will hopefully change its plan. “I believe that the next INDC, the one we’ll make in 2018, that it will be a real reduction. That’s good for the country and for people and the world,” says Mr. Samardzija.
Meanwhile, climate change discourse in Serbia is limited. Most of the time, it doesn’t exist at all.
“First of all,” says Samardzija, “climate change is not a topic here at all. It’s not a topic in the same way as in the West. The Guardian has a whole page as part of it’s Environment section dedicated just to climate change, which has a couple of new articles every day. I mean, the Guardian is an incredible newspaper, but climate change is a topic. Maybe they’re not number one, but they really are at the top of any political dialogue in the West”.
Sometimes, like in the case of the 2014 floods, the topic becomes too big. Then the media often appeal to local folklore and superstitions to explain what can no longer be ignored.
Milica Adamovic gives an example of an article posted in 2014, during the floods. “I read that a husband cheated on his wife, so she went to throw some incantations for her husband to be killed. That’s still common in Serbia, that kind of thinking. That witches are organizing it all up there, that it’s God’s will, that God is testing us, that’s all still very common,” she says.
Some struggles, however, resonate even in developed countries with stable environmental reporting. Journalists have an obligation to show two sides of the story, which, in the case of climate change reporting, has created confusion.
“On one side, we have a scientist who is saying that climate change is dangerous and real, and that we should do something about it, and behind him it’s 99% of the scientific community. And then you have some pseudo-scientist, behind whom there’s no scientific research, and he’s talking about climate change but doesn’t know anything,” says Samardzija. “I think media can make a difference by reporting on scientific facts rather than somebody’s pseudo-science,” he concludes.
The situation in Serbia, where the media is torn, the government unmotivated and limited impact of personal lifestyle changes, is nothing new. This country is like a microcosm of the bigger, global picture. Under these conditions, how can a problem as big as climate change be solved?
“The story that was relevant in the ecological movement for the last 20 years, do a little to make the planet better, that doesn’t make sense anymore. That may have made sense 20, 30 years ago but not anymore,” says Samardzija.
He tells me about a village in France called . The community got together and they built windmills from which they now earn more than is that town’s designated budget. A similar thing happened in Germany, where the citizens voted in a referendum to buy off the electric power distribution system of their solar panels. These communities are now using clean energy and making a profit at the same time.
“We can say ‘Germany is just like that,’ or maybe Germany is like that because it has people like those. But we, on the other hand, are passive. Always waiting for someone to offer us or impose on us a better solution. A lot of people are waiting for that, for something to come from above,” says Samardzija.
Energy from coal is still cheaper than more renewable technologies can offer, especially because of the subsidies the industry gets. And while people are waiting silently for a solution from above, some people do make their voices known.
“On one side we have the fossil fuel companies, on the other politicians and then the citizenry. And since the citizenry hasn’t said what it wants yet, but the fossil fuel companies have said what they want, then politicians listen to them. I mean, that kind of behavior on the side of the politicians, it’s just human,” says Samardzija.
So what will it take for the citizens of Serbia to take a more active part in this debate?
“You know, this is a country that in the last, how many, 30 years, survived wars, survived bombing, survived political and economic crises. I think that the living standard of life in this country for the average citizen is so low that to him neither the environment or public health, to him it’s about that small circle in which he lives and about which he thinks about is whether tomorrow he’ll be able to secure the most basic things like food and pay the bills. You know, when the first of September comes around, most people’s problem is they can’t afford to buy shoes for their kids. There’s no environment, there’s no public health, to them it’s a problem to buy their kids shoes,” says Mirko Popovic.