The World Bank

Getting the water sector in the Western Balkans ready for EU membership

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Courtesy of Courtesy of The World Bank

It would be my first time in Croatia, so naturally I was excited to be part of the team that organized a Danube Water Program workshop on EU Cross Support in the Water Sector in Zagreb September 28-29.

Initially, the reasons behind the World Bank’s support of this workshop aimed at facilitating the alignment of national water legislations with the European Union (EU) acquis were not obvious to me. Given, however, that almost all of the countries covered under the Danube Water Program find themselves somewhere on the path towards EU membership or candidacy, it made sense for some of them to convene.

And who could possibly be more suitable to host such an event than the EU’s youngest member state, Croatia?

So at the end of September, in a small and – despite the suits – rather informal setting at the local World Bank office, around 20 people from several line ministries and water works gathered in a conference room (with a great view of a somewhat rainy Zagreb) for a two-day event. Representatives from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia came together to discuss potential issues and hurdles that they might encounter in the transposition of EU water laws into their national legal frameworks.

A delegation of Hrvatske Vode (the national water management company) – most of whom had been part of the Croatian negotiating team – started by sharing their experiences regarding legal technicalities, financial commitments, and the building or upgrading of infrastructure in the course of bringing the Croatian water and sanitation sector up to EU standards.

I was surprised to learn that the Urban Waste Water Directive is the single most expensive directive ever adopted by the European Union. It is this exact kind of information that potential EU candidates and potential members need to factor into their planning in order to come up with realistic expectations as to the time frame and the financial resources they will need to commit in order to bring their sector up to EU standards.

Guest speaker Helmut Bloech, a former water expert for the European Commission in charge of working with the Croatian negotiating team, gave us practical tips and real-world examples of good practice and funding options. He also outlined some key challenges that the participants might face in the future and how to tackle them.

Bloech encouraged the participants to ask questions to the Commission and their peers, and to share both their experiences and their problems with their neighbors from a very early stage. This idea of cooperation is key, especially given the transboundary nature of the water sector in the Western Balkan region. Rivers and lakes don’t respect borders and neither do the externalities that national laws and infrastructure (or lack thereof) have on those waters.

Transboundary water management is a world-wide concern – but it is an especially sensitive one in a region where most of the workshop participants still remember being at war with their neighbors 20 years ago. At the same time, all of these people are technical experts, not politicians, and they share a common goal which allows them to work together and learn a thing or two from their peers.

Here it does make a lot of sense that the World Bank leverages its position as a global development leader to facilitate knowledge sharing around a particular topic. In addition, participants got to know each other; it can be hoped that the exchange between the different institutions continues even beyond the event’s duration.

To take the practical nature of this workshop to its logical conclusion, participants also went on a field visit to get some (fresh) air at the Vodovod Slavonski Brod – an EU-financed wastewater treatment plant, where they had the opportunity to talk with representatives, engineers and chemists about anything, from access to financing, to cost recovery, to the chemical processes involved.

After making a mental note that nude ballerina flats aren’t the best choice for a trip like that, I appreciated the opportunity of getting my own tour and explanations in German from one of the engineers who had grown up in my home country (Austria) before moving back to Croatia as a teenager.

The world, indeed, is a village.

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