The current coronavirus pandemic indicates to the importance of conserving water and water resources. Today, when World Water Day is marked and when one of the most important protective measures is regular, safe and effective hand hygiene, it is important to be reminded how climate change and responsible water system management affects the water availability for all.

Have you noticed in recent years that rivers of Bosnia and Herzegovina no longer have high water levels in early spring, caused by snow melting and heavy spring rains? Did you get wet due to the unexpectedly heavy showers during the spring? The circulation of water in nature, the term which we studied at schools as a water cycle, is already affected by climate change, particularly global warming.

While the total precipitation in the areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina is similar to the previous periods, its schedule varies throughout the year, resulting in shorter occurrences of very intense precipitation, and the same goes for longer dry periods. Snowpack levels are on average declining. The amount and distribution of precipitation and consequently the availability of water over time is different than before, affecting all water users – citizens, economy, ecosystems.

Experts point out that with a further rise in average temperature, evaporation of water and the moisture content in warmer air will also increase, which will lead to increased precipitation in some parts of the world, thus resulting in more frequent flooding, but only at certain times of the year. Such changes also lead to enhanced water runoff after rains, thus resulting in its reduced infiltration into the soil and, consequently, reduced replenishing of ground water reservoirs, from which most of BiH population is supplied.

Most public water systems in BiH supply water to the population from ground sources intake. Only a small number of them do not have such sources available and instead abstract water from open watercourses, where the quality of such water is significantly poorer and in general requires (expensive) treatment. But if groundwater is not being replenished and if the pressure of intake from such sources is increasing, for how long we can continue with such practice, are we threatening our children's future with such behaviour? And how well do we use the water abstracted in such manner, if at all?

On average, public water systems in BiH estimate that they are able to bill less than 50% of the abstracted water (such bills do not always get paid). Unfortunately, more than 50% falls into the category of the so-called non-revenue water. This is primarily the water that leaked through the pipes before reaching users, but also the water the consumption of which is not properly registered such as due to faulty water meters and also due to the unauthorized connections to the water supply system.

In fact, for the needs of citizens and the economy, we are actually abstracting twice as much water than we should, mostly from the ground – thus further accelerating the reduction in the amount of water available from such sources. We should also add the release of untreated water back to nature, which also diminishes the quality of reduced quantities of available water for all our needs and the needs of the ecosystems, which is an issue the addressing of which can no longer be postponed.

Why have we come to the situation that our water supply systems have such high losses and use the reserves of available drinking water irrationally? There are several reasons why, starting from insufficiently precise legal definition of responsibility for water supply network maintenance, the collection and allocation of funds for this purpose, to addressing the problem of unemployment by excess employment in public sector services, which financially burdens enterprises and diverts money that may have been spent on improving the state of infrastructure into the salaries of employees. Then there is the lack of costs segregation of different services provided by a single utility company, and thus impossibility to identify total costs only of the water supply service, which would help in better tariff setting, then the poor quality of subsidy policies that often provide subsidies to those who do not really need them (even the very rich) instead to the ones in need.

There are many interrelated reasons, however the problems are not such that cannot be resolved. And the solution does not necessarily have to be equal in all settings. However, it is desirable to follow the basic principles of ensuring the efficiency of the water supply system and water supply service tariff setting – more information on this aspect is provided through UNDP's Goal-WaterS project, funded by the Government of Sweden, at the following link: https://goalwaters.ba/

Authors: Branko Vučijak, Alisa Grabus

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