A Flood of Failures
Before the communist regime collapse thousands of big and small dams were built in Bulgaria, making the water reserves of the country among the biggest in Europe. Now nobody knows who and how maintains them. This can be deadly dangerous.
Dams or Dumps?
Bin-bag in hand and jeans completely drenched Gerry, a young woman in her twenties, is floundering in the still, muddy waters of Vacha, a dam located in the glorious Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria.
Massive amounts of floating garbage, including household and medical waste, discarded car tires and furniture, have turned one of the most picturesque and deepest dams on the Balkans into a dump.
"It is a crime to use dams as cesspools when people don't have enough to drink," says Gerry, one of dozens of volunteers, who have turned out to spruce up the site and collect the garbage.
"In Bulgaria there is a common view that water is a gift from God, it does not cost anything and is not worth saving. This is absolutely not true," she fumes.
Even though not everyone is so sure about the environmentalists' ability to meet what is proving to be an increasing pollution challenge, these young people know Bulgaria's water heritage is one of its biggest assets and it needs to be protected.
"They often compare us to a small Titanic, rising against the floating icebergs of garbage. Yet we believe what we are doing is a must," comment they.
Bulgaria has one of the lowest water resources across the European Union with an average annual inflow of about 15.7 billion cubic meters – or about 2,300 to 2,500 cubic meters per person a year.
It is sad but true that before the collapse of the communist regime in 1989 thousands of big and small dams were built, making the water reserves of the country among the biggest in Europe.
Now it is the ordinary people who seem to have taken the responsibility for the dam's management into their own hands, not the state. But this can be very dangerous.
Dam or State Failure?
Nine people died on Monday after the southern Bulgarian village of Biser near the Greek border was flooded by a burst dam amid heavy rains and snow storms.
It turned out that people from the region had warned authorities numerous times of the serious threat of flooding. The wall of the dam had a six-year-old crack everyone knew about and no one repaired. It also emerged that the ownership of Ivanovo dam and hundreds of other such facilities around the country is unclear.
The flood tragedy posed a number of burning questions:
Does the Bulgarian state know who owns what? Do Bulgarian municipalities, especially the poorer ones and not to mention villages, have the capacity and financial resources to maintain dams?
Isn't it true that Bulgarians – owners of dams, flats to rent out and clerks – rarely make the right calculations when it comes to everyday maintenance and prefer to skip and save the money?
Does the government have the right to boast with excellent financial fitness if only the replacement of water facilities will engulf BGN 10 B?
Aren't Bulgaria's healthy finances built on a very shabby notion of modernity and a status quo stuck in the past?
Anchored in the past
Many Sofia citizens remember the water rationing regime from the beginning of the 90s. Just few of them however remember the main reason for it – lack of coordination between the operator of the dam and the operators of the water sewage system.
The first did not know about the needs of the city, the second was completely unaware of the dwindling reserves in the dam. Besides the water company did not know that state electricity transmission utility NEK used the scarce amounts of water for its own output.
The situation has not changed a lot since then despite a few amendments to the Waters Law. More than twenty years later Bulgaria's water sector remains one of the least reformed systems in the country.
Except for the Sofia water utility, which has been granted on concession to a foreign investor, all other units in the sector are either owned by the state or the municipalities. The cash-strapped country can not afford to upgrade and maintain all units in the system – from the dam to the end users – and they have been left to the mercy of time and vandalism.
Following the fall of communism all former Soviet-block countries demonstrated the need to have an effective legal system and working state institutions before embarking on big structural reforms such as privatization. After years of laggard reforms, Bulgaria believes it is ready, though belatedly, to liberalize its water sector and provide legislation about who does what.
Summer drought, lagging dam construction, leaks and failures in old pipes, which bring about water rationing for hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians every summer, should be on top of the investor's agenda.
Obsolete water and sewage networks made of asbestos cement are another problem as they cause enormous leaks and contamination of otherwise very good-quality water. An average 60 percent of water pumped in the pipes never reaches consumers, while in some regions losses amount to up to 90 percent, experts say.
Watered down privatization?
Does private and foreign-owned win the race? Could the private sector do a better job? When it comes to the privatization of their water sector, many poor countries hope so.
But in Bulgaria, this is proving highly controversial. Economists are divided over whether this would help or hinder the sector and have often engaged in spats in the pages of local newspapers.
Investors say that European Union funds are essential but absorption takes more time and effort than anticipated. Moreover, the investment needs of the Bulgarian water sector are very high and EU funding alone will not be sufficient to cover them. According to them public-private partnerships and EU funding are complimentary and can co-exist on the same projects.
Privatization is a dirty word for those who aver that Bulgaria is in danger of becoming a third world country, from which rapacious foreign investors will only suck money. They say that one of the most powerful drivers that dragged Bulgaria into recession is the privatization of natural resources monopolies and public services.
Plans by the Bulgarian government to privatize part of the country's water sector have caused indignation among the ordinary people too.
"Sofia's municipal water supply was auctioned off nearly a decade ago, and all that's come out of this are drastic price hikes and exorbitant profits for the offshore concession holder. This model does not serve the public interest, which the government is sworn to protect," says Nina Hristova, who has been living in the capital for decades. .
In an ideal world of pure water and purists, a country's water heritage may be untouched by commercial considerations. In reality however the state will eventually have to enter into some form of partnership with the private sector to run the water sector. Regulated and supervised properly, this might even raise standards and save lives.
Otherwise Bulgaria will end up high and dry – unfortunately not literally, but figuratively.