Serbia’s garbage-filled lake: 'We aren’t taught enough about the environment'

Plastic and other waste filled Serbia’s Potpeć Lake on December 31, 2020.
Plastic and other waste filled Serbia’s Potpeć Lake on December 31, 2020. © dr.karadarevic and Ajsela Music on Instagram
Text by: Poline Tchoubar
7 min

Potpeć Lake in Serbia turned into a watery landfill on December 31, when tons of garbage accumulated near a dam. The garbage likely came from one of the landfill sites along the River Lim. Poor waste management has been causing issues in the community for a long time, says one resident.

Advertising

Framed by mountains and extending as far as the eye can see, the lake next to Potpeć dam in southwestern Serbia should be beautiful, except for the mounds of garbage choking its waters. Citizen’s collective Savki naskip immortalised this scene in a video posted on Twitter on December 31:

This video, filmed by Goran Prijovic, shows Serbia’s Potpeć Lake filled with rubbish.

The same sad sight also greeted people living near the Višegrad dam, located about 50 kilometres downriver in the neighbouring country of Bosnia-Herzegovina, on January 5.

Journalist  Enisa Aletic published photos showing the mountains of garbage piled up next to the dam on Twitter. 

The rubbish that accumulated at Potpeć Lake was washed in by the River Lim, which flows from the neighbouring country of Montenegro and crosses Serbia to continue into Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Activist Sinisa Lakovic confirmed to news agency Reuters that the rubbish now covers close to 20,000 cubic metres of the lake.  

'People have been throwing garbage by the river for decades'

 

Ajsela Music
Ajsela Music
41 y.o.
Prijepolje, Serbie

Ajsela Music, age 41, lives about 20 kilometres from the dam. She went to Potpeć Lake on January 4 and took pictures of rubbish there, which she then posted on Instagram:

Ajsela Music’s caption reads, 'Too bad for "us": disaster!'

The lake still hadn’t been cleaned by January 10 and a fresh layer of snow covered the waste:

This photo shared by Music shows the state of the lake on January 10.
This photo shared by Music shows the state of the lake on January 10. © Ajsela Music

She told our team that she was convinced that the rubbish came from a landfill near the town of Prijepolje:

Stanjevina landfill, located on the outskirts of the town of Prijepolje, sits on a river bank and so, for decades, we’ve been throwing away our garbage right next to the river. The landfill was actually shut down about a month ago after pressure by locals and political parties. In late December, there were heavy rains and a large amount of garbage was found in the River Lim. 

There was some garbage in the lake before but a lot less. The lake is regularly cleaned. But this time, it was horrible to see the garbage float by and accumulate next to the dam. 

Music shared this photo of the Stanjevina landfill taken in 2019.
Music shared this photo of the Stanjevina landfill taken in 2019. © Ajsela Music

In this landfill, the garbage piles up in a very small space. Fires often break out. There was a lot of air pollution, even if it wasn’t talked about very often. 

You can see a fire burning in the Stanjevina landfill in this Google Earth satellite image, taken on June 8, 2019. The River Lim flows just below.
You can see a fire burning in the Stanjevina landfill in this Google Earth satellite image, taken on June 8, 2019. The River Lim flows just below. © Google Earth

There are a number of landfills located on the banks of the River Lim. Some people actually dump their rubbish directly into the river. Others use illegal landfills, says Music:

There are also a lot of small landfills that my fellow citizens have set up themselves, alongside the river. The biggest issue is that we aren’t sufficiently educated about the environment and there is no punishment for people who pollute the land around them. 

'This happens every time the water levels rise'

 

This is a photo of a small dump site created by residents near the River Lim.
This is a photo of a small dump site created by residents near the River Lim. © Ajsela Music
Saša Bjelić
Saša Bjelić
Priboj, Serbie

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to Saša Bjelić, who lives near the lake. A school psychologist, he created the group Facebook "VoLim NE dam" with the aim of protecting the River Lim: 

What is happening right now happens every time the water levels increase. The river picks up garbage because the Stanjevina landfill is located right by the river bed.

The Stanjevina has indeed been shut down, but it hasn’t been cleaned up. Now garbage is disposed of in a different landfill in a neighbouring town, which is also located near the river. 

The European Union already provided money to help address the problem of waste management in Serbia, but the local city governments haven’t done anything. 

It’s not the first time that waste has piled up in Potpeć Lake. The situation first became problematic in August 2020. As for the dam in Višegrad, located downriver in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a Google Maps image from back in September 2018 shows garbage piling up on the water’s surface. 

This issue isn’t new in Serbia. Back in June 2019, residents of the town of Novi Pazar raised the alarm about river pollution by posting a video showing a crane collecting rubbish in the River Jošanica… only to drop it back in the river on the other side of a bridge. 

In June 2019, there were large floods in the region of Novi Pazar.

Serbian energy company Elektroprivreda Srbije and water company Srbijavode will be working to clean up Potpeć Lake, according to an Instagram post by Srbijavode on January 6.

On January 4, the Serbian minister for the Protection of the Environment, Irena Vujović, called for “cooperation between the relevant ministers in neighbouring countries” to “find a long-term solution to the problem of garbage in the Lim and the Drina [rivers]".