Reducing inequalities in access to clean and safe water in the Balkan region

Representatives from member states and civil society from our region (UNECE) came together to look closer at: where are we now and where do we have to go?

Globally, regional meetings are held ahead of the High Level Political Forum (HLPF), held in July every year. These regional forums create a space for dialogue, for different stakeholders to come together and discuss the challenges from our region. The outcome is then presented at the HLPF at the United Nations headquarters. This year we are rewimveing many of the social justice SDGs on: clean water and sanitation, quality education, reduced inequalities, climate action, and peace, justice, and strong institutions. We were there as the organising partner for Women’s Major Group and with our partners from our Water & Safe Sanitation Plan (WSSP) project to showcase our results.

Reducing inequalities in access to clean and safe water

In cooperation with United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), we held a side event our WSSP project in the Balkan region, which focused on many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  The project, implemented with the help of local partners and financed by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety of Germany (BMU), aimed at reducing inequalities, which are still high in the pan-European region. In our session, the panelists presented results, best practices, and actions addressing water and sanitation improvement in the Balkans. The role of common cooperation in the region was highlighted several times during the discussions, together with the strategic role of civil society.

Biljana Filipovic, Assistant of the Minister under the Sector for international cooperation and EU integration at Serbian Ministry of Environmental Protection speaking about nationall level work on water and sanitation.

In total, 45 high officials from different institutions such as the Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Germany in Geneva, the Environmental and Health Ministries and Institutions from Serbia and North Macedonia, WHO and BMU representatives participated alongside stakeholders from civil society and the private sector. We shared the achieved results from North Macedonia, Albania and Romania with the audience, explaining the improvements achieved in the region. In addition, key messages from the World Water Development Report and the Protocol on Water and Health were introduced.

Our international director, Sascha Gabizon, was the moderator of the side event. The German Embassador Dr. Hans-Peter Jugel gave the welcoming speech to our audience. Biljana Filipovic, Assistant of the Minister under the Sector for international cooperation and EU intergration at Serbian Ministry of Environmental Protection shared the Serbian experience based on the work the ministry is implementing under WASH.

Mihail Kochubovski captivating the entire room when he starts presenting about men and menstruation.

Many specialists have also demonstrated the importance of such projects. Prof. Mihail Kochubovski, for example, from the Institute of Public Health of North Macedonia, emphasized that as a candidate country to the European Union, North Macedonia already improved the legislation on Drinking Water Directive. Those changes are necessary, because rural water supply systems often do not meet basic technical and quality standards and sanitary requirements, and most urban areas have poor wastewater treatment facilities as well. From the Ecological University of Bucharest, Mihaela Vasilescu also mentioned the guidelines on water safety plan for small communities, highlighting the disparities between urban and rural areas. She showed some data from a pilot project in Romania on risk analysis for small drinking water supply systems, which could be used as an example for other countries in the Balkan region.

Adriana Spahiu (Women in Development Shkodra) described the WSSP in Romania, Albania, and North Macedonia. The countries’ challenges and activities throughout the entire project were presented and a two minutes video of the activities and the situation on water and sanitation in Albania was also shared with the audience. Monika Isacu (Aquademica) described the project outcomes in rural areas from Romania. The experience obtained during the project implementation proved that teachers and students can play a crucial role in developing activities and working on future application of the WSSP in the school curriculum. Natasha Dokovska (Journalists for Human Rights) also spoke about the future perspective of including WSSP in the school curriculum in North Macedonia. She showed examples of school activities and how to raise awareness via media outreach (e.g. World Water Day, World Toilet Day, Menstrual Hygiene Day, etc).

Jorje Viñuales (Compliance Committee of the Protocol on Water and Health) shared some examples towards reducing inequalities and achieving equitable access to clean and safe water. Murray Burt (UN High Commission for Refugees) presented the World Water Development Report, both of them participated actively in the discussion and expressed support for future activities related to WSSP in the Balkan region and highlighted some key facts of latest reports: 2,1 billion people face lack of water accessibility at home.

“We would like to continue strengthen the activities in this region, we now have a good basis and understanding of the needs in this region from different stakeholders’ perspective,” concluded our Programmes Coordinator, Bistra Mihaylova.

But what could we take as a take home message from this meeting?

First, water safety is still a sensitive topic in the Balkan region, for example, although sewage treatment access has improved a lot in the past few years, about 65% of the population have it nowadays. Second, we should address the gender aspect of water safety in future projects. For example, schools with female directors presented safer and healthier water and sanitation facilities. Following that, Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) should also be included as one of the priority goals, since menstrual poverty is a reality for many in the region and menstruation is still a massive taboo. Just to name a few problems, MHM is not on the educational system, and the infrastructure in school and working places is lacking water, soap, and appropriate trash bins.

And what should we do to keep fighting inequality? Some of the recommendations included the creation of a fund for eradication of menstrual poverty, reduction of the taxes on menstrual products, access to adequate education and accurate information.