Serbia's government called an urgent meeting to address the problem Wednesday, shortly after a peak in weekend air pollution levels prompted emergency measures in Bosnia's capital, Sarajevo. A report last year by the U.N. Environment Program said Sarajevo has some of Europe's highest air pollution concentrations, while on average people living in the Western Balkans lose up to 1.3 years of life to air pollution.
Croatian police on Wednesday also urged citizens in the capital, Zagreb, to use public transport and avoid bikes or scooters. High concentrations of toxic air particles are typical during winter in Balkan countries that largely depend on coal-fueled power plants, and where people drive old cars and use wood and coal for heating. In recent days, windless weather conditions and thick fog have exacerbated the problem.
While dozens of towns and cities throughout the region are suffering, the worst hit has been Sarajevo, built in a deep valley ringed by mountains. For most of the past week, Sarajevo's levels of airborne PM10 particulate matter have been at least twice — and sometimes eight times — higher than the European Union safety limit.
The soaring pollution has angeredenvironmental activists in both Bosnia and Serbia, who say authorities are doing too little too late. “The air we breathe is poisoning and killing us,” Dobrica Veselinovic, from the Do Not Drown Belgrade group, wrote in an open letter this week demanding the resignation of Belgrade's mayor. “Why isn't anyone doing anything?”
Belgrade has been wrapped for days in a cloud of smog that particularly afflicted lower-lying areas. The city health authorities' web page carried an alert Wednesday with the succinct warning: "The air in Belgrade is polluted!"
But government health officials advised against panic. They attribute the problem to a combination of inefficient energy consumption, outdated industrial equipment and use of fossil fuels in winter, including low-quality brown coal.
Experts have warned that these and other environmental setbacks could even stall efforts by Serbia and other Balkan countries to join the European Union. In Bosnia, activists have blasted the government for relying on short-term measures during the crisis days — such as banning diesel vehicles and recommending the use of face masks — while not dealing with key issues, such as the proliferation of tall buildings that block the air flow.
The Swedish embassy to Bosnia warned this weekend on Twitter that Sarajevo was “in a category of its own when it comes to bad air quality.” Sarajevo authorities have cut ticket prices for the city's cable car that leads to the nearby Trebevic mountain, as residents head for popular ski resorts to avoid pollution.
In EU member Croatia, police said t he bloc's air pollution standards were exceeded in part of Zagreb on Wednesday. A police statement urged citizens to avoid open-air activity and cut down on smoking.
Sabina Niksic contributed from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.