Years back, in parallel with the development of tourism on the banks of Una River, concrete embankments were built in and around Bihać, permanently disrupting the river flow in order to make access to water easier for the privileged owners of properties by the river bank. Kilometres of riverbanks are framed in concrete embankments, but no one has accurate data on their number. In just 20 kilometres, we mapped eight river revetments, none of which has a building permit. However, the law is clear – no construction is allowed at 15 meters distance from the riverbank. However, neither the authorities nor those who are trying to claim Una River seem to care about the law.
The sudden expansion of tourism in the north-west of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is mainly due to the untouched nature of the emerald water and the wild green banks of the Una River, along with numerous benefits for the locals, had negative consequences for the environment. Along with touristification, the owners of plots by the riverbank built concrete walls and fences, which disrupted the concept of the riverbank being a public good.
– Riverbanks are claimed by fences, regardless of whether the plots are private or not, parts of the riverbanks and tributaries are destroyed and, worst of all, they are filled with concrete, which is known as concreting in the public. Scenes where excavators and heavy machinery go as far as the riverbed are getting more frequent. The destruction of the Una River banks through construction changes the riverbank and aquatic habitats and disrupts the living conditions for all types of life, as well as the hydrological regime, morphological characteristics of watercourses, landscape characteristics and other factors of life, explains Vildana Alibabić, a professor from the Faculty of Biotechnology in Bihać, who authored a series of scientific papers in the field ecology and who is a member of the Pomak political party.
As Alibabić explains, during the construction of river revetments, the habitats of the living world get destroyed, trees are felled, excavations are carried out, machinery leaves traces of oil and fuel and causes dust and noise. Willow is treated as weed because it is a species that is not categorized as either firewood or technical wood. At the same time, one forgets that willow tree protects the riverbank with its roots, says Alibabić.
– Macrozoobenthos are particularly affected by the interventions. They are animals that live at the bottom of rivers that can be seen with the naked eye and are important for the creation of biomass or water purification. At the same time, they are an excellent bioindicator of the aquatic ecosystem state. There is no doubt that all these phenomena lead to the deterioration of surface water quality, and if the conditions in the water ecosystem are changed, the fish will not survive, the travertine will not grow and therefore Una River, burdened with all the pollution, will be less and less able to fight this, stressed Alibabić.
Una stands no chance against the rich tycoons, who, like possessive lovers, occupy its shores, causing it permanent injuries.
A city in love with the river, as written on the official website of the City of Bihać, supports such tycoons’ attitude towards Una by just witnessing and not acting not only upon the violation of the ecosystem but also the violation of the law, which is very clear.
– For first category waters, which include the Sana, Una, Neretva and others, construction is banned in the 15-meter zone. Only water management facilities can be built and that law was passed in 2006. However, the municipalities completely ignored it, says environmental activist Anes Podić from the Eko akcija Association.
Mapping of river revetments
The Naratorium team visited Una in September, while the water was still calm and the sun was bright. In a 20 kilometres long stretch, we mapped eight concrete river revetments. Among them is a revetment under construction, for which the locals say that the inspection prevented the pouring of concrete, which is why a yellow tape has been put at that location. This river revetment, according to the data of the Federal Administration for Geodetic and Property Legal Affairs (FGU), is located in the area of Bihać on plot 2002/6 in K.O Jezero Srbljani and, according to the same registry of the FGU, it is owned by Esad Brkić.
Of the eight river revetments that were mapped, together with the aforementioned revetment on which construction has been suspended, five were built in the area of the Municipality of Bihać and three in the area of the Municipality of Cazin.
According to the cadastral data of the FGU, the mapped river revetments in the area of Bihać are located by the following plots: 2005/1 (Lake Srbljani) owned by Kurtović Selima, 3130 (Kralje) owned by Poprženović Ibraga and Poprženović Ismet, 3509 (Kralje) owned by Terzić Mirsad, and 1576/1 (City of Bihać) owned by the company Rekić d.o.o.
In the area of Cazin, we mapped river revetments which, according to the cadastral data of the FGU, are located in the coastal area by the following plots: 1817/4 Ostrožac owned by Kapić Dževad and Kapić Nedžada, 1758/2 (Ostrožac) owned by Jusić Omer, 1206 (Miostrah) owned by Beganović Smail and 1194 (Miostrah) owned by the Public Enterprise “Unsko Sanske šume”.
We requested Bihać and Cazin municipal authorities to provide answers about the building permits issued for the mapped facilities, including the unfinished river revetment. Almost three months later, after several emails and numerous phone calls, we received a reply from Bihać regarding the issuance of construction permit certificates.
– An inspection of the records of submitted requests and issued approvals in the Service for Urban Planning, Construction, Property and Geodetic Affairs showed That, under the name of “Rekić” d.o.o. Bihać, there is an ongoing procedure for issuing approval for the construction of a catering facility at plot 1576/2, Bihać-Grad no. 03/1-19-2-1941/23. This procedure has not been completed. According to this Service, “we hereby inform you that other natural persons, for whom you requested information, no construction permits have been issued, nor are procedures being conducted based on their request”.
Cazin authorities, on the other hand, did not respond to questions about the legality of river revetments, although they told us in a telephone conversation that our request for information had been received.
How many illegal river revetments are there?
The Sava River Water Area Agency stated in their response that the municipal/city or cantonal building inspection has jurisdiction over illegally built facilities, regardless of where they are located.
Whether the municipal inspection acted in cases of illegally built river revetments in Bihać and why it reacts selectively are just some of the questions that leap out. However, we did not receive answers to these questions from the competent Service for Inspection Affairs of the City of Bihać.
According to the procedures, as stated by the Agency, reports on illegal construction in the watercourse area are forwarded to the FBiH Administration for Inspection Affairs.
– There were two cases of this kind (regarding the illegal construction in the watercourse area) this year, and two in 2022, the Agency stated.
No one has accurate data on the number of river revetments on the Una River and on the legality of facilities built in the water zone.
– The lack or “concealment” of information and transparency of public companies is one of the continuous cancers of our society. Perhaps there exists an answer to the question regarding the legally built facilities on the banks of the Una River and the illegal ones, but I am “deprived of the right to I have that information”. I don’t have it, and I believe that not a single citizen who lives on those riverbanks does. Maybe someone in the administrative bodies or not at the FBIH level has this information, but we who want to have it, have to sit down and research, map, get any kind information, said Professor Alibabić.
Even the Chief Federal Water Inspector Mirasad Smailagić does not have accurate data, but he assumes that there are hundreds of illegally built river revetments in the area of the Una-Sana Canton.
– According to my personal estimate, there are about 200 such revetments in the Una-Sana Canton, some made of stone, some of earth, some of concrete. Whoever has some land, a house or a cottage there, fences he river for personal needs. Revetments are provided for in the law, but project documentation must be obtained for such a thing, first in cooperation with the Agency for the Water Area of the Sava River to obtain a water permit, and then based on that, construction approval is obtained. That would have been the right path, but no one has done it in the way that is provided for in the Water Law, explained Smailagić.
Procedures related to handling cases of construction of concrete structures in the riverbank area are regulated by Article 2 of the Water Law. Problems, however, exist in the interpretation of this Article.
Refusal of cooperation from the local level
– The cooperation is explained quite vaguely in this article, and that is why we asked for an authentic interpretation from the Government of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which we finally received on November 11, 2021, signed by the then Prime Minister of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Fadil Novalić, explained Smailagić.
The decision, which is stuck in the procedures, regulates that in cases of construction of embankments, as Smailagic stated, the competent building inspector, in this case the municipal one, and the FBiH water inspector go to the construction site together.
– If the FBiH water inspector notices illegal activities, he/she issues a misdemeanour order, and the building inspector should order obtaining a building permit. Considering that it is not allowed to build river revetments in the zone of water resources, the person in question would not be able to get such a permit, and then it would be the job of the building inspector to order the removal of such structures, the procedure is very clear, Smailagić stressed.
This could mean that even the facility on the plot owned by the company “Rekić” d.o.o. cannot be issued a permit. Whether the building inspector will interpret the law in the same way remains to be seen.
– If the facility cannot be legalized, the building inspector, and this is written in the law, should order its removal, Smailagic said.
The chief water inspector emphasizes that this Inspectorate has received reports related to the construction of river revetments on the banks of Una River. However, the refusal of the municipal authorities to cooperate, left them powerless to do anything to protect the riverbank.
– We tried to come to an agreement with the Building Inspection in Bihać on how to proceed in such cases, but they had a different opinion. They claimed that the FBiH Water Inspectorate should remove these facilities, which is incorrect because the Water Law does not provide for the possibility for the FBiH Water Inspectorate to do this. That is why we asked the Government of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina for interpretation of the Law, says Smailagić.
The FBiH Ministry of Agriculture, Water Management and Forestry, headed by Kemal Hrnjić, a native of Bihać, oversees the enforcement of the law protecting rivers and their banks.
– If they notice irregularities, they can warn, but of course they do not do that, Podić concluded.
While the decision on the interpretation of the Law, which would order the cooperation of local and FBiH inspections, is lost in parliamentary procedures, the tycoons in Bihać and the surrounding area continue to build river revetments that permanently desecrate Una, taking away its most significant features, which are manifested in the beauty of wild, untouched nature. During that time, local authorities only selectively sanction illegally built facilities on the river they are in love with. Could the future be more optimistic for Una, or is it crazy to believe that a misguided decision to cooperate with the authorities will change the fate of the river?
This text was prepared in cooperation with the Heinrich Boll Stiftung Sarajevo.