AIM: start

SAT, 15 DEC 2001 22:55:32 GMT

Thirsty Macedonia

On top of hunger, Macedonia is becoming thirsty as well. Because of this year's drought and political bickering, water supplies have deteriorated. After Kumanovo, the people of Prilep are now fighting for normal water works by blocking the streets of this town. People in Skopje fear that the announced privatization of the public water works and sewage system, and possibly a foreign takoever, is going to make their lives miserable. Experts warn that water is a precious national resource and that it should not be managed by foreigners. Now it is up to the Constitutional Court to rule who is right -- the city administration or experts.

AIM Skopje, December 6, 2001

In addition to the troubles caused by the crisis in the country, Macedonians have begun to suffer from a shortage of water. They are not only hungry -- the FAO has listed them as the sole European nation among the people of Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh in its latest report -- but they are becoming thirsty as well. Because of this year's drought and political bickering, it is currently experiencing major water supply problems. At the end of this year, the driest in half a century, Prilep residents are facing hard times. This town of some 100,000 people is pleading for help, but no one is listening. They have even approached the Parliament, and have asked the cabinet to at least for a moment put aside its political issues and take a look at their plight. Mayor Sasa Pirganoski says he will sue the state for not abiding by its own laws, and people are daily blocking major roads, holding the dishes they use to gather water for their basic needs. Certain parts of town haven't seen a drop of water in the past 15 days, and the few tanker trucks dispatched to the area have done nothing but cause additional tension and frustration. Hospitals are cancelling operations, patients are being sent home, schools and kindergartens are closing. Everything has ground to a halt, a state of emergency has been declared, and fighting among the people standing in line for a drop or two from the trucks are no rarity. Experts warn that the city is in store for an epidemic of some sort.

The existing water works, built thanks to money raised by citizens of several municipalities, broke down years ago. It used to be a source of many disputes, inter-ethnic tensions, feuding among local officials, strikes, even political showdowns. State officials kept promising the moon, especially before elections, but the problem did not go away. In violation of all human and moral norms, instead of being used for the benefit of the people, water is still being used to cool turbines at the Oslomej thermal power plant, near Kicevo. Well-informed sources claim that the cabinet does not know what to do, because either way, more trouble will follow. To send water to Prilep, quenching thirst and restoring hygienic living conditions, means the power plant will have to be shut down. But without the plant, about 200,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, would be left without electricity. Purchasing power abroad would cost US$2 million per month which the cabinet says it cannot pay.

Until the cabinet makes up its mind, everybody is looking up towards the sky and praying either for rain or God's help, if there is a God, that is. Back on the ground, however, several ways have been proposed for bringing water to Prilep, but they require not only time and money, but first and foremost political will.

When water was used only for drinking and washing, there were not any problems, analysts say. But now, after politicians got involved, it is used for everything other than drinking and washing. Experts have pleaded with politicians to sober up and realize that water does not depend on the type of government, that it knows nothing of parties or elections, that it is a non-renewable resource and that it dictates natural rules that ought to be followed while there is still a chance.

To make things worse, a campaign is underway and its slogan is "Life depends on water -- everything depends on us," in an attempt by the Public Water Works to urge people to conserve water. The campaign costs a lot, and it was paid for by USAID, in support of an EBRD loan intended to improve water works in five municipalities. These are Veles, Kumanovo, Strumica, Stip, Ohrid and Struga. Over DM200,000 was spent on the campaign with little or not effect. Educating people via commercials is something that is not likely to work in the Balkans, says Aleksandar Lepavcov, director of the Macedonian Water Fund. It would have been much better to invest the money into fixing facilities in Prilep, for example, which is not on the assistance list and whose mayor, as if by accident, belongs to an opposition party.

>From the long list of problems Lepavcov quotes the age of the water works network, which averages 25 years. He claims that 50 percent of the system does not adhere to international standards, that 30 percent is not yet finished although construction began 10 years ago, and that some 30 percent of water is lost en route to consumers.

In Macedonia water is used by everybody, but almost nobody cares about it, and even less about paying for it. It serves not only for drinking, but for washing streets and watering parks and making plaster. There are five ministries in charge of exploiting water -- for agriculture, forestry and water works, transport and communications, economy, environment and health care -- as well as a number of smaller institutions such as the aforementioned Water Fund. Everybody uses, but according to the Public Water Works, no one pays a penny. Only 30 percent of all consumers bother to pay. Among the major debtors are various state institutions and even members of parliament. In this light it is a miracle that the company is only DM2 million in the red and is still surviving. Our sources say that it could even be better for it to close its doors, having no say in how the burning problem of water ought to be settled.

In 1998 the Parliament passed the Water Act, but no steps were taken to enforce it. Implementation was stalled by politics and powerful state officials. Nothing was done to restructure the system, and every municipality was in charge of its own, minuscule section of the network estimated to be worth DM2 billion, without any control whatsoever, except for that exerted by political parties. Every investment project in the past three years meant the forming of a new company to carry it out, managed by members of the ruling coalition. This was the case with the Kozjak, Lisice, and Ilovica hydro-systems, and with a project to restructure Macedonia's water works worth US$32 million for which a World Bank loan has been approved. According to well-informed sources which asked not to be named, the problem behind the problem are scams, from the writing off of debts in exchange for bribes, to deliberate money laundering for which no one has been prosecuted.

The announced privatization of the Skopje Water Works and Sewage public company came on top of all this. Many believe that this will violate the constitution, because city officials have decided to turn it over to a private operator for the next ten years at an international tender. An Austrian consultant has already been selected and it is working on the task, which includes 51 percent concessions. The city will retain 49 percent. Skopje Mayor Risto Penov claims the decision was made at the recommendation of the World Bank which is lending the money for the construction of a new water supply and sewage system in the city and its surroundings, for procuring park maintenance equipment and drilling wells for technical water. The foreign operator will not manage the Rasce well, because it is protected by the act on waters as a natural resource, but will only use the water and pay for it. The price, says Penov, will be determined by the city authorities, and the foreign partner will be in charge of the fees and maintenance. During the reorganization of the company, the mayor says, no employee will be fired.

This sounds nice but for many experts and many ordinary people consider it is unacceptable because it violates the constitution and the Water Act. National resources need to be conserved and not given to foreigners to manage, regardless of their ostensibly honorable intentions, says Petar Bocvarov, former manager of Skopje's Water Works and Sewage company, and who has taken the city's decision to privatize the company to the Constitutional Court. He is convinced that the city does not have the right to sell national resources to foreigners and that up to 800 of the company's 1,200 employees could be fired as redundant. Water prices could go up by as much as 30 percent in three years, he adds.

Now the matter is in the hands of the Constitutional Court. It will decide who is right -- city elders or experts. But Skopje residents are afraid that the privatization of Water Works and Sewage will yet make their lives miserable.

Branka Nanevska