The ecosystem of the Strumica River Basin plays an essential role in the lives of some 124.500 people in North Macedonia, and provides vital habitat for a great variety of animal and plant species. The health of this ecosystem is crucial as a source of water for drinking and agriculture, especially as farming has long been the main source of income for the majority of the population in this fertile region.
But the health of this valuable but vulnerable ecosystem has been under threat in recent decades, primarily as a result of pollution and rising demand for water from farming, industry and growing urban centres. These accumulated pressures make the ecosystem especially vulnerable to climate change, raising the risk of extreme water scarcity in the future that would jeopardize the livelihoods of local farming families. ‘My family has been farming here for longer than anyone can remember,” says Sashko Andonov from the village of Novo Selo, ‘so I can tell you without a doubt that water is the lifeblood of this region. Anything that harms the river and all its tributaries hurts us all.’
One of the key threats to the health of the river basin is pollution from local industry. There are some fifty industrial plants in the region engaged in food processing, textiles and livestock farming, and many of these factories do not consistently comply with environmental regulations. Experts have found that the main reason for this lack of compliance is that the small municipalities in the region do not have the technical capacities and resources to enforce the EU’s system of Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC).‘Enforcing IPPC rules properly would significantly reduce emissions into the air, land, and water,” explains Danche Pop-Ivanova Ilieva from the Centre for Development of the South-East Planning Region. ‘It’s a system that’s proved effective across Europe and one that brings many additional benefits. It would reduce the excessive use of raw materials and energy, for example, and increase the volume of waste recycling and reuse. We need to get these regulations working so we can promote the use of cleaner technologies and reduce pollution at source.’
The regulatory basis for establishing IPPC has actually been in place for many years. Consistently enforcing these rules has proven difficult, however, with a number of major obstacles hindering implementation. Among the key obstacles to effective implementation, experts have identified four key factors that will need to be overcome. Firstly, municipal personnel currently lack sufficient specialised knowledge of permitting and monitoring compliance. Secondly, party-political factors in past years have led to lapses in the enforcement of emission-reduction measures. Thirdly, there is a lack of awareness amongst local people about the causes of industrial pollution and ways to tackle this problem. And finally, the fourth key factor is a lack of incentives for industrial operators to comply with permit conditions. In such a challenging context, industrial operators routinely disregard their legal and social responsibilities to the environment, with severe consequences for water resources, biodiversity and ultimately for communities.
To overcome some of these key obstacles, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and UNDP have designed a project to address the causes directly by increasing local awareness, knowledge and capacities and facilitating inter-municipal cooperation to make the most of available resources. Over the past two years, a comprehensive technical assistance framework was developed in order to provide on-the-job training in IPPC procedures for officials from all six municipalities of the Strumica River Basin. “The course was really effective because it provided training on quite technical procedures,” says Gorgi Dimitrievski from the Municipality of Strumica. “Learning from real-life cases helped us understand the principles behind the IPPC rules from the points of view of different stakeholders.” After successfully completing their training, municipal staff had the opportunity to apply the new knowledge in industrial facilities, including a factory for edible oil in the Municipality of Strumica and a dairy factory in the Municipality of Bosilovo.
To help municipalities make the most of available resources in addressing the challenges of enforcing IPPC regulations, an inter-municipal cooperation was facilitated trough this project so that all six municipalities was encouraged to provide mutual advice and support. The project has also organised training for representatives from industry providers and environmental NGOs. As a result of these training courses, local administrations in the region have greater capacities to issue permits and enforce compliance with IPPC regulations, contributing significantly to the overall aim of restoring the health of the ecosystem of the Strumica River Basin.
The project also carried out the first ever spatial analysis of industrial pollution in the River Basin. The newly synthesized data from this analysis is being combined with the River Basin Management Plan to provide the basis for an innovative system of monitoring industrial pollution and tracking the compliance of industrial capacities with permit conditions. As part of this effort, the project supported the preparation of a technical report summarising the environmental pressures on the basin caused by the main industrial facilities in the region. Based on an earlier needs assessment, the project produced two manuals on IPPC procedures that will be shared with all municipalities throughout the country.
The next steps of the project will be focussed on providing further support for these and other measures to ensure that progress is sustained. This will include additional technical support in developing effective monitoring, further support for municipalities, especially in the form of inter-municipal cooperation, and further measures to raise awareness at local and national level, both amongst the public and amongst government personnel.
‘All these efforts have already had a significant impact on building local capacity to enforce IPPC rules and reduce emissions in the region,” says UNDP Programme Manager Dimitrija Sekovski, ‘and the project will continue to play an essential role in the future functioning of the enforcement system, guaranteeing control over the emissions of fifty industrial operations across the Basin. And that spells a better future for the Strumica River Basin and for all the people who live in this region.’