By Bojana Vlajcic
“Our city was one of the first cities in Serbia to build a wastewater treatment plant almost 50 years ago,” says Edita Trungel Mešter, who has been working at the wastewater treatment plant in Subotica for more than two decades. “Since then, we have had several upgrades and accumulated a great deal of experience and knowledge. Today, engineers from other cities come to us for training in wastewater management.”
It was a prescient investment. Fifty years on, Subotica is still one of the few cities in Serbia with proper wastewater infrastructure. Less than 10 per cent of the country’s wastewater is treated and remedying this is expected to be one of the most critical and challenging areas of investment for Serbia as it advances its integration into the European Union (EU).
Subotica started work on its environmental infrastructure in the 1970s, when the city’s growing industrial activity started to threaten nearby Lake Palić. There was no system for collecting wastewater from the industrial facilities, so the effluent leaked directly into the lake, harming its biodiversity. The city’s decision to build a wastewater treatment plant helped prevent further pollution in the two decades that followed. It was not a permanent solution, however.
“The wastewater plant was problematic for two reasons,” explains Deputy Mayor of Subotica, Imre Kern. “It didn’t remove phosphorus and nitrogen and it didn’t have enough capacity. We needed to build an additional treatment plant.”
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the EU and the bilateral donors of the Western Balkans Investment Framework (WBIF) have been supporting Subotica’s efforts since 2006, when it started to modernise its original treatment plant and construct a sludge line. The city then continued to upgrade its network by extending its sewerage network and constructing collectors and additional water pipelines, among other things.
The upgrade helped to improve the quality of Subotica’s wastewater disposal and treatment services. It also allowed the city to connect another 12,000 of its 140,000 citizens to the sewerage network, bringing coverage to 60 per cent of inhabitants. In addition, the new wastewater plant has the technological capacity to produce energy from waste and currently produces 25 to 40 per cent of its own energy needs.
“With the overhaul of the wastewater treatment plant, Subotica became one of the first cities in Serbia to have modern water and wastewater infrastructure in line with EU standards,” continues Deputy Mayor Kern. “We achieved our most important goal, to reduce the concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus to the prescribed limits, which significantly improved the quality of water in the lake and helped preserve its biodiversity.”
The city continued to invest in its water services and, in December 2020, opened a new drinking-water treatment plant.
“In addition to the wastewater treatment plant, which was the city’s biggest-ever investment, we also invested in the construction of a new [potable] water treatment plant,” explains director of Subotica Waters (JKP „Vodovod i kanalizacija“ Subotica), Đerđ Šugar. “Now all of our citizens have access to clean drinking water, free of arsenic, which is a common problem in the region.”
The EBRD provided close to €20 million(US$23,576,400.00) in loans for the project, while the EU and the Western Balkans Investment Framework and bilateral donors provided €9 million of investment grants and technical assistance.
“There has never been a stronger momentum to invest in green infrastructure than today. It is a global and European priority. It has now become a top policy priority in Serbia. Hence our strategic focus is to scale up and accelerate investments,” says EBRD Regional Director for the Western Balkans and Head of Serbia, Zsuzsanna Hargitai. “80 per cent of our forthcoming infrastructure projects are green investments. The time has come to upgrade national and municipal environmental services and create a healthier environment already for the current generation of citizens. ”
The EU has also been providing support to Serbia for other water purification projects. In the Raška area, for instance, it has invested more than €6 million in a wastewater treatment plant.
“This is another milestone in Serbia becoming greener, protecting its citizens and fostering a brighter future,” says Martin Klaucke of the Operations Section of the EU Delegation to Serbia. “European integration for Serbia is not an abstract thing; it is something people can see and feel in their own homes through cleaner and safer water for them and their children. Protecting the environment means protecting the people. That is what the EU is about: a better life for the people.”