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Black Point of the Danube Basin

Published 04th October 2009 - 16 comments - 4665 views -


The clinical picture of Serbia’s economy and Serbian society has mainly been the same for a long time. To put it simply: the economy and the people are seriously depressed.
While experts are searching for a cure against this modern illness, I found a few medicinal, anti-depressive facts in some forgotten archives. They date from the end of 18th century, from the time when the currently Serbian province Vojvodina was under the control of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Right then, the biggest economic project of that time in Europe was being realized. The swampy land between the River Danube and the River Tisa, about 120 kilometers long, 23-25 meters wide and on average 3 meters deep, was being dug by more than 3.000 people. The goal of this most expensive investment was to shorten the navigable road between Romania and Vienna. This was important for the Empire’s ships which were transporting salt. On the other hand, the frequently flooded fields were drained and, during the years, the soil became one of the most fertile in Europe. This impressive economic project, realized as a concession which made a profit for only 25 years, is today known in Europe as the Grand Backa Canal.


I was born in Kula about 170 years later. Kula is a small town and the canal flows through it. I grew up on its banks, at the time of the strongest economic development of communist Yugoslavia. I remember, my friends and I went fishing and swimming in its perfectly clear water. In the distance, one could see the factories’ smokestacks emitting black smoke into the skies, like in van Gogh’s paintings. Then, we didn’t know how this process can affect to environment and climate change. We were children, picking cane and making little flutes, playing and glorifying the nature and life. It was a happy childhood.


The years were passing by. We stopped spending time on the canal banks. We were interested in other things, but we still lived in the same city, nearby the water which was getting murky. Every day I would walk past it and observe how it was changing. During the increasingly longer warm periods of the year, there would be less and less swimmers at the canal. The winters became surprisingly dry, without snow and ice, so no one could play ice hockey. The canal became a lonely place.
Last October, when my daughter was 4, she asked me to take her visit the maternity hospital in the town where she was born. We took the bus and went to Vrbas, a neighboring town, well-known for its food industry. My daughter was born there, in the maternity hospital that is only few hundred meters away from factories and the Grand Backa Canal.
It was a hot day. The air temperature was above average for that period of a year. (By then I had learnt about the climate change and global warming.) After we visited the maternity hospital, we walked back to the bus station. The station is located in another part of city and we had to cross a bridge to get there.
„Daddy, what’s this smell? Why does it smell like that? What kind of filth is that on the water surface?“ my daughter asked me suddenly, in her wonderful voice. I looked at her. She had pulled her T-shirt over her mouth and nose. „I would never live here“, she added decidedly. „Nor would I“, I replied quickly while I pinched my nose, and added that the factories in front of us had polluted the water. „Is that the reason why the water is greenish-grey, thick and smelly?“ she asked me. „Yes“ I said and sadly thought that my daughter would never be swimming in it, like I used to. „The factories are insolent!“, she said and I took her in my arms. While we were hurrying to the bus station, I was thinking about the canal, which maybe once used to be a source of life but which became one of the biggest sources of pollution, not only in the region, but much further. „Why can’t my daughter have the same childhood like me?“ I asked myself anxiously.

A view from the bridge (Vrbas, the Grand Backa Canal, 2009/10/01)

A view from the bridge (Vrbas, the Grand Backa Canal, 2009/10/01)


Over the past 30 years, the industry has been polluting the Grand Backa Canal in unimaginable quantities. Along the route Crvenka-Kula-Vrbas, which is only 6 kilometers long, there are around ten big factories that release their waste water into the canal’s bed. According to numerous environmental studies, which were recently mentioned in the media, such as the Economist Magazine the level of pollution in the canal's waters is equivalent to the level of fecal water pollution. Nevertheless, on the thick sludgy grounds, apart from some organic matters, there are remains of copper, lead, cadmium, nitrogen, zinc, nickel, potassium, even mercury. The website of Western Balkans Environmental Programme published upsetting data: ‘’The canal is no longer able to absorb the amount of waste produced by factories processing sugar beets, by farm pigs, by slaughterhouses, by factories producing edible oils, metalwork, and other pollutants, such as small industrial plants and untreated sewage waste from the towns’ banks of the canal. Worse, at a turn near the town of Vrbas, the canal is almost blocked with industrial sludge, and the water flowing over it is only 30 cm deep’’. The outcome of the study about the Grand Backa Canal by the the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA) has shown that there are 400.000 cubic meters of sludge along this distance.
That’s why this part of the canal is a black point on the navigable map of Europe.
The problem, which is not only local and ecological, but also a climate problem, was identified in its early phase. However, political interests were more important than the personal interests of citizens. In the last decade of the 20th century, Serbia has indirectly participated in the civil war that took place on the territory of former Yugoslavia. It has been imposed an embargo by the international community, and has finally been attacked by the NATO in 1999, so that it was exhausted in the economic sense, among other things. During that time, the food industry, located along these 6 critical kilometers, had been playing a key role. The most important factor for the state was to keep the food industry going, and no importance had been given to the resulting air and water pollution. In those days, nobody thought about the poisonous substances that were being released into the canal, exterminating its flora and fauna. Nobody thought about waste water treatment and how waste water can affect global warming. Thanks to politicians above all, Serbia has become a extremely poor country in every sense, and it is well-known that the poverty is a main enemy to nature and life.
A low standard of life is linked to many things, including the ecological awareness of citizens. They also greatly contributed to the Grand Backa Canal becoming an open septic tank. Following the factories, some citizens, whose houses were located near the canal but not connected to the sewage system, had made individual drainpipes and released waste water from their backyards into the canal. However, that wasn’t the only problem. Many of them, who didn’t have any money to buy fire wood, cut treeline paths along the canal’s banks. In this way, and that is bitter irony, they additionally endangered the environment as well as their own lives. From a point of view of consequences, it is less important whether they were forced to act in this way.


Only a few months after my visit to Vrbas with my daughter, I read some encouraging news about the revitalization of the Grand Backa Canal:

''As part of the regional programme, this project will support the Republic of Serbia to resolve one of its key environmental hot spots - a part of the Grand Backa Canal that runs through the municipality of Vrbas in the autonomous province of Vojvodina. This part of the canal has been described as the worst polluted waterway in Europe.[...]

[...] Through the implementation of the project’s activities, the main collector that will serve as a recipient of pre-treated industrial and communal waste waters will be finalized. At the same time, the project will support the creation of a network for the supply of professional services in the area of environmental protection. Following the assessment of policy coordination mechanisms in the country, the project will support three pilot initiatives, which will include a broad spectrum of stakeholders, as showcases of successful policy integration.''

The project consists of three phases:

• The first phase represents the construction of the main collector, which will aggregate the municipalities of Vrbas and Kula, and collect all municipal and industrially pre-treated waste waters
• The second phase of the project encompasses the construction of the Waste Water Treatment Plant in Vrbas, which will collect and treat all waste waters coming from the collector
• The third phase is the remediation of the Grand Backa Canal


Let us look back at the very beginning of this text, where it was said that the clinical picture of Serbia’s economy and Serbian society has mainly been the same for a long time.
Truly, even after ten years have passed since the dictatorship has been overturned, and a so-so democratic system has been established, Serbia still remains a very poor country, and its citizens are slow in changing their awareness and engaging themselves in problem-solving activities. The revitalization project of the Grand Backa Canal costs 45 million Euros, and without help from abroad, in particular Norway and Holland, this problem would never have been solved. This is irrefutable evidence that the economy still plays a major part in all segments of life, but also in environmental and climate change issues. The climate is a unique system and opinions about it are not divided. There are local problems with global consequences, and, for that reason, partnership between countries is essential. The world needs politics of peace, and not politics which causes wars, sanctions, bombardments and destruction. We in Serbia know this very well. Once a system is destroyed, recovery is very difficult, and this seems to be a general rule on this planet. It appears that the new generation of Serbian politicians has realised that they have to cooperate with the rest of the world, in particular with a view to protecting the environment because the world has become a global village. Thanks to this tiny change in awareness, not of the politicians, but also of ordinary citizens, as well as the governments of the above mentioned European countries, the Grand Backa Canal will, once again, become a healthy environment, and some new kids, such as my daughter, will have the opportunity to have a happy childhood on its banks.

Category: International Action, | Tags: climate change, environment, europe, waste,


Pavel Antonov on 04th October 2009:

This is a fascinating story, mixing well personal sentiment, history, and the environmental remediation efforts of the present. Telling about environmental projects is not always easy - particularly because project work has its own slang which is often too boring and specialized for people to understand. You have done a very good job translating it into the language of everyday life. Other voices, both from the local community and from the experts, working to improve environment, would make this an even more enjoyable piece to read. And I would be interested to hear what stand do local polluting industries take. Are they ready to join efforts with authorities to have the problem solved?

Pavel Antonov on 04th October 2009:

And of course I do want to hear all follow-up comments, just forgot to check that box smile

sinisa boljanovic on 04th October 2009:

Thank you very much, Pavel. I am honored by your comment. I have already tried to get some information from representatives of pollutions but, unfortunately I haven’t received anything yet. Hope I will have some information very soon and then I’ll publish a new post. For now I know that some factories have wastewater filters but I don’t know whether they are functioning, and how? Once again, thank you very much.

Daniel on 05th October 2009:

Great post! smile Big problems,but also hope, and a personal touch to the writing that made it a pleasure to read.

Tanja on 06th October 2009:

Agree, really nicely written!Thnx a lot!

fidelius on 09th October 2009:

very interesting to read. To me, this is the kind of situation, that makes me wonder -  How could it even get this far? This process must have gone on for years aunder the eyes and noses of people. You tried to answer that partly… 

I hope the phony words of the project to clean this up will be followed by action.

Regards from Vienna

sinisa boljanovic on 09th October 2009:

Hi Fidelius.
Many things are still unclear and unknown in Serbia. I would also like to know how the pollution of the Grand Backa Canal was possible so extremely. As far as I am concerned, the state was (and is) responsible for that. Unfortunately, Serbia was under Milosevic’s regime almost 15 years. He destroyed our country in every sense. To put it figuratively and literally, he was the country, and mentioned factories were in government property up to a few years ago. Milosevic waged wars, didn’t care about ecology. He wanted to control intelligence services not communal services. I think that was main reason because the canal was excessively polluted.

Laura Vidal on 06th November 2009:

Very good Sinisa… and congratulation for your two prizes!!!

Paul Montariol on 06th December 2009:

I understand why you received a price!

Sinisa Boljanovic on 06th December 2009:

Thank you, Paul.
Hvala (in Serbian)

Paul Montariol on 06th December 2009:

I have nearly finished of reading all what was written by all the bloggers, your work is very good .. as others too!

Nail art on 15th December 2009:

It is really a nice post, its always great reading such posts, this post is good in regards of both knowledge as well as information. Thanks for the post.
Nail art

Pavel on 18th March 2010:

I too in the childhood of veins near to the river in the city of Samarkand. I look at this horrific image and at me heart is compressed from a pain. I sympathise with you.

Pavel on 13th April 2010:

It is very a pity the nature.

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