The Gazivode/Ujmani issue and a part of the solution

Dušan Janjić u kolumni +381 sa Bljerimom Šaljom na portalu "KoSSev"
Dušan Janjić u kolumni +381

The Agreement signed between Serbia and Kosovo in Washington DC on September 4th, 2020, supports the economic and overall improvement of relations between Serbia and Kosovo. Normalization will not resolve all the problems that have accumulated throughout history, including the past several decades, but it is one of the key prerequisites for providing a prosperous and stable future to all citizens in the region and the Western Balkans.

One argument for this assessment of the Washington Agreement is the agreed joint management of resources of Gazivode/Ujmani Lake.

Certain politicians and a part of the general public have used this agreement to deliberate on the “final solution” regarding the status and territory. This stems from the very fact that this artificial lake was built in the former common state, the dissolution of which has not yet been completed. The project was designed and prepared in the late sixties by the “Energoprojekt” construction company from Belgrade, and implemented in the period 1973 – 1977 by “Hidro energetika” – “Hidro gradnja” company from Belgrade. Using Serbia’s funding for the development of Kosovo, a hydroelectric power plant was built in 1988, producing annually 100,000,000 kW/h of electricity. For many this would be sufficient to come to the conclusion that both the lake and the dam are solely Serbian property.

The dam was built with funding from the World Bank, close to $100 million USD. This loan was partially repaid by the former Yugoslavia, and after its dissolution Serbia assumed the remaining debt of $45 million USD.

These projects were part of the program for the development of underdeveloped areas of the former Yugoslavia, and Kosovo was the least developed area, both in Serbia and in Yugoslavia. Regulations in force at the time stipulated that such an investment belonged to the socio-political community in which it was constructed, that is, to the then province of Kosovo and the municipality of Zubin Potok. For that reason, a legally valid solution to the issue of ownership will be only provided in the process of succession, which implies Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo. The Washington Agreement allows some of the existing issues to be resolved, such as the compensation to Serbia for the loan, without prejudging the “final solution”, and gives an opportunity to establish the facts and eliminate the practice of exchanging accusations between Belgrade and Pristina about stealing electricity or making a profit out of it. These issues belong under the umbrella of the initiated Brussels dialogue on the topic of mutual financial and property claims. The Washington Agreement is an important voice of support and encouragement for the clarification of these issues, and should not be used as an alibi for blocking the Brussels dialogue.

The importance of the lake for Kosovo and Serbia is evidenced by its main purpose, which is water supply and irrigation for the Kosovo lowlands in the northern part and part of central Kosovo. Water is drained to the Gracanica lake and used to supply water for Pristina. The entire basin of the Ibar river, especially from Raska to Kraljevo, is an extremely important water supply source for Serbia. Therefore, Serbia has an interest and a need to participate in the improvement of water supply infrastructure, rational use of water, and the reduction of water pollution in the basin. Another reason why this basin is important is the fact that the water collected in the lake is used for cooling of the thermal power plant „Obilić B“.

The lake is 24 km long and over 100 meters deep. The dam is 107 m high, 460 m wide and 408 m long, and the water volume is 380 million cubic meters. It is the largest clay-bottom lake in Europe. Out of 29 km2 of the lake, only 3 km2 is located in the Republic of Serbia.

The joint-stock company „Ibar-Lepenac“ manages the lake on the Kosovo side, and the government of the Republic of Serbia founded PE Ibar in 2004, which owns HPP Gazivode and finances the maintenance of the dam and hydro power plant. In reality, the lake is still managed by the public company „Ibar“ in Zubin Potok, which was founded by the Government of Serbia. This problem has been discussed since 2015 in the Brussels dialogue but no agreement or sustainable solution has yet been found regarding the management of this important resource. That is why this problem deserves special attention in the Feasibility Study, which should be prepared on the basis of the Washington dialogue.

Last but not least, there is an issue arising from the fact that the lake is located in the municipalities of Tutin – southwestern Serbia and Zubin Potok, Kosovo. Also, 14 villages in the cadastral municipality of Tutin were flooded for the purpose of construction of the lake. This issue must be included in the topic of demarcation between Serbia and Kosovo in the Brussels dialogue. If the cadastre is taken as one of the criteria, and most likely it will, the demarcation or the border line could go over the lake. The issue of the border itself is a politically important issue and often leads to conflicts. This was also shown in the raising of the topic of ethnic demarcation between Serbs and Albanians, Kosovo and Serbia, during the internal dialogue on Kosovo, in 2017 and 2018. It should be reiterated that the Washington Agreement enables and encourages cooperation when approaching this issue. Through an agreement on joint management of this resource, and through the development of economic and infrastructure projects, Gazivode will become a space of cooperation and full normalization.

For the reasons already mentioned, and before the start of the work of the DFC (US International Development Finance Corporation) in Belgrade and the Western Balkans, Gaziovode is becoming an “instructional example”.

These days many are announcing rivers of US dollars that will flood Kosovo and Serbia overnight. This only confirms how much the public, even the part that pretends to be informed, is essentially insufficiently familiar with the actual state of affairs. There are many obstacles to overcome before concrete projects, their implementation and funding by the DFC and other American and EU investors, are put on agenda. These include unresolved property relations, a lack of professional staff, a high level of corruption and the modest financial capacity of Kosovo and Serbia.

It is important to mention that the DFC will support the Gazivode project, in accordance with the Washington Agreement. That is why it is important to keep the whole picture in mind when deciding on specific projects. The DFC support should be used to agree on a comprehensive cooperation program for the reconstruction and modernization of this hydro system, which is essential water resource for the territory of Kosovo and central Serbia in terms of water supply, irrigation, and electricity production. Gazivode should be viewed as the basis for the development of the local community and the economy, and as a part of a broader eco-picture of Ibar-Lepenac, which concerns the overall progress of the economy and the quality of life in Kosovo and Serbia.

Given the importance of sustainable development and overall economic normalization, the initiative by the Chambers of Commerce of Serbia and Kosovo to establish a joint team for economic cooperation is appreciated. One of the first tasks and tests for this team could be to work with the DFC to develop a feasibility study for the management of Gazivode/Ujmani lake, with the aim of establishing sustainable management that respects and improves the natural environment and interests of the local community and economy. It could also be an incentive to expand cooperation to local communities – Tutin, Novi Pazar (Serbia) and Rozaje (Montenegro).

The Gazivode Dam is one of the largest earth dams in Europe, and has not been renovated for decades. The feasibility study must therefore include the modernization of the dam management system (introduction of a new signaling system and digitalization of the management system).

Concerning electricity generation, potentials are limited. However, there are plans to build a hydro power plant in the northern part of the lake. This idea should be thoroughly reviewed since the protection of the quality of water in the lake is paramount, and because it is a source of drinking water. Also, other possibilities of obtaining more electricity from other sources should be examined. The feasibility study should also envisage support for the development of energy diversification i.e. production of electricity from other sources – biomass, sun and wind.

Over the past decades there has been a devastation of the rich forest fund in the lake area, primarily due to unplanned and uncontrolled deforestation. It is necessary to establish a control system for wood cutting and to finance afforestation and forest fund maintenance programs. In addition, regular maintenance and cleaning of the lake, canals and land, development of agricultural and livestock activities, and the improvement of the practice of organic waste recycling could create a raw material base for the use of bio-energy. The advantage of such projects is that they are available to small and medium enterprises, and can be the basis for public-private partnerships as well as for the development of cooperatives. The feasibility study should also consider the justification for investing in the modernization of the forest management system, which is currently poorly run by the public forest company “Ibar”.

There is no effective system of environmental protection in this area, nor a system of collection and recycling of waste materials, primarily plastics. For example, rivers and even the lake itself are polluted with plastic from illegal landfills, as well as from the landfill in Ribaric. The feasibility study could include the construction of a landfill system and a local recycling center to be built through a public-private partnership or a concession agreement.

The feasibility study should also consider the economic benefits of the Mokra Planina Mountain located above the lake. In this mountainous and hilly area is the monastery of Crna Reka, which is of exceptional importance for the Orthodox heritage and the activities of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The importance of this area for the preservation of Serbian cultural heritage should be taken into account, considering that part of the cultural and historical monuments were flooded during the construction of the lake. This implies that the design and implementation of the lake cleaning project must include the projects of rescue and reconstruction of important cultural and historical monuments from the period of the Roman and Byzantine empires, especially from the period of the rule of the medieval queen Helen of Anjou. The feasibility study should include these topics and review the need and sources for funding the continuation of archaeological and other research, as well as specific reconstruction and conservation projects.

There are numerous possibilities for the development of tourism in the area around the lake and the local community of Zubin Potok – mountain tourism, cultural and educational tourism, water tourism, hunting and transit tourism.

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