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The dam and the damned

Note from Lefteast editors: This articles is published in cooperation with the Croatian portal Bilten, published originally on 10.01.2020.

Pernik, a declining industrial city in Western Bulgaria that’s the home of over 100,000 people, is in the grips of a water crisis. On November 18th, 2019 the city government introduced severe water restrictions, only to tighten them further a month later. At the time of writing, Pernik has water for 6 hours a day but locals complain that the schedule is not observed, leaving them to scramble for little water at unpredictable times.

The purpose of these restrictions was to stop the dangerous emptying the nearby Studena dam, which supplies the city and the neighboring villages with water. The restrictions did slow the emptying, but the ongoing dry autumn and winter ensured it could not be stopped. Soon enough the water in the dam reached the dead storage level near the bottom where mud and sediment make it undrinkable.

The lack of potable water did not prevent the state from increasing its price across the country immediately after New Year, but after an uproar, the price hike for the Pernik region got retracted.

The restrictions created their own host of sub-disasters. Around Christmas a neighborhood in Pernik complained the tap water is foul and several people ended up in hospital with E.coli poisoning. E. coli was also discovered in the taps of a local kindergarten. After conducting emergency replacement works, the authorities explained that suction from stopping and releasing water drew waste water into the fresh water pipe, the pipes being too close and too much in a state of disrepair.

In other parts of town, the stoppages burst open old pipes, leaving citizens without any supply. Emergency bottled water distribution was immediately organized.

Following these developments, the mayor declared a state of emergency and practically all the top levels of the state apparatus – the PM, the health minister, the chief health inspector, the interior minister and so on have been involved in the efforts to solve the crisis. At least they give off this impression by constantly appearing on the media to promise justice for the city and swift penalties for the responsible for the calamity.

The mobilization did not leave civil society unaffected, either. A heroic engineer-entrepreneur and ex-concessioner of a Black sea beach, certain Atanas Roussev, toured the media with his so-called “Roussev plan” to pump out water from the caves around Pernik to fill the dam. Intriguingly, he began the execution of his plan before receiving any clearance for doing so by the state.

Critics say the plan is useless because the underground water goes overground and reaches the dam eventually. Further, it is said that pumping disrupts this water cycle.

Nevertheless, the government earmarked 340,000 BGN for the “Roussev plan,” which in turn registered a minor success but far from what was originally expected: 40 l/sec as opposed to the projected output of 300-700l/s.

Like all dams in Bulgaria (except for 3), Studena was built during socialism. Save for a wall reconstruction in 2018, the dam and the surrounding infrastructure have not been refurbished until the current water crisis drove home the consequences of the sorry state of neglect, triggering break-neck rehabilitation efforts that should have been done years, if not decades ago. Because of the criminal lack of maintenance, over 75% of the water from the dam leaks out from the old pipelines. The nearby dam of Pchelina could have “stepped in” to make up for Studena’s loss of capacity, had its pumps, stolen in the chaotic 1990s, been replaced and the dam rehabilitated. At the time of writing, when Studena is almost empty while Pchelina releases 3,000 m3 per second in the nearby river, essentially going to waste.

The city initiated the refurbishment of the old purification station, the construction of a new one, and the rehabilitation of parts of the network, including by 2km of pipes away from their current position. The last measure was necessitated after meters installed at the two ends of the main pipe connecting Studena and the purification station revealed inexplicable losses. Coincidentally, what sits atop this pipe is the city’s industrial zone.

Stomana Industry —Bulgaria’s largest steelmaker, privatized in 2001—was suspected of causing the water disaster by tapping illegally on Pernik’s water for its production needs.

That area, housing some 17 companies, among them Stomana Industry —Bulgaria’s largest steelmaker, privatized in 2001—was suspected of causing the disaster by tapping illegally on Pernik’s water for its production needs. According to the Ministry of the Environment, Pernik needs around 1,550,000 m3 of water per month. With 75% of estimated losses, this means that citizens really consume about 400,000 m3. A report authored by Sofia’s (privatized) water utility alleged that Stomana Industry is taking advantage of an old leaky pipe and gets free water to the amount of 650,000 m3 monthly while paying for 150,000 m3 only. The 650K m3 is written away as “losses” which consumers are liable to cover with their monthly bills.

Further, another report alleges that Stomana does not use its own designated water reservoir of Pchelina but prefers Studena because the leaky pipes allow it to use “five times more water than it pays for”. The industrial giant vehemently denies the allegations, saying it cannot be held responsible for leaks from the decaying state-owned water infrastructure. That sounds logical but it begs the question why is legal to write the losses onto consumers’ bills?

Even if Stomana does not steal, it still shouldn’t be sourcing tap water for its industrial operations. Yet it does, because it’s cheaper. According to an official from one of the water authorities in Pernik, the roots of the crisis lie in 2003 when Stomana switched from Pchelina to Studena to save costs.

In all likelihood, the truth about Stomana’s role in the calamity will never be established. Тhe Minister for the Economy Emil Karanikolov suggested as much when he said it would be unfeasible to conduct a thorough investigation of every water tap in the industrial zone; it would be more realistic construct a new pipeline that bypasses the zone instead.

In effect, the state is letting industry off the hook, citing emergency measures and lack of time to conduct proper investigation who emptied out Studena. In a perverse circularity, the emergency of the water crisis is cited as the very reason why thorough inquiry into the crisis’ causes is not on the agenda.

The businesses are immunized for now and the local and the regional prosecutor’s office began investigating the officials. Suspecting neglect at the highest institutional orders, they transferred the case to the Specialized Prosecutor’s office dealing with cases of terrorism and corruption. The local utility chief was sacked while the minister for regional development kept her job despite being the principal of the national dams, and thus directly responsible for them.

Eventually Neno Dimov, the Minister for the Environment, a notorious climate denier and pro-business advocate, got arrested and will most likely be charged with criminal neglect. He had been authorizing the monthly consumption and water releases of the dam, maintaining the usual supply to Stomana and the city, while disregarding the declining levels, flagged by various people since summer.

In addition to the minister’s role in the disaster, media investigations speculate that the 2018 refurbishment of the dam’s wall was done by private contractors cheaply by releasing a lot of water instead of by engaging divers for much more costly “wet” works.

Meanwhile PM Borissov voiced a cynical hypothesis, blaming the disaster on the “old grandmothers” who “leave the tap half-open in winter so the pipe won’t freeze. My grandma used to do that, too.” (In 2009, he similarly justified the new round of austerity measures by alleging that the Bulgarian pensioners “have gobbled up the budget” with their presumably oversized pensions). In addition, he opined that had the municipalities privatized the socialist-era enterprises more profitably and had they been more efficiently applying for EU-funds, the state would have kept its deficit targets instead of financing emergency works now. Borissov normally couches his remarks in his inimitable, joking and back-slapping phraseology whose effect is domesticating neoliberal ideology, and securing the consensus that the technocratic lingo of the experts can’t.

After some pipelines were replaced, the authorities declared reduction of leakages by 20%. The minister of the Economy Karanikolov explained the slow pace of the works that the local water authority does not have a map of the pipe network, and that the pipes are laid out so haphazardly, overlapping with the underground electricity infrastructure rendering drilling with large machinery extremely dangerous.

Some media reports also highlighted the extreme state of decay of the under-staffed local water utility. Yet no-one connects this sorry state of affairs, and the near-complete absence of public oversight, to the budget-axing of the sweeping austerity measures, introduced in the late 1990s. Instead, the minister for regional development Avramova blamed the underfinancing of local water authorities on ordinary people falling behind on their bills allegedly depriving the local utilities of much-needed cash. If this should be so, it is only because relentless liberalization crafted out of state-supported utilities self-sufficient enterprises competing on the free market or for European funds.

Meanwhile, right after New Year’s Eve, the water level of the dam reached the critical dead storage. Only a new and very sophisticated purification facility can make the muddy sludge close to the dam’s bottom drinkable. In a bid to continue provisions even from the dead storage, the state suspended the market logic and financed the construction of just such a facility to the tune of 30 million BGN (15m EUR). The money was also earmarked for updating Pernik’s dire water infrastructure and for diversions of nearby rivers.

Many commentators agree that all these measures come too late. Already in early September, two MPs from the Socialist Party raised a parliamentary enquiry about the declining levels of Studena’s water. The Minister for the environment Dimov discounted the problem, saying there is enough water to ensure normal supply at least until January 2020. One month later, the first round of seemingly unending cycle of water restrictions began.

Meanwhile, villages around Pernik, which are not supplied from Studena but whose water is diverted to Studena, are also placed on strict water restrictions. As usual, in order to mitigate the outbreak of crisis, villages get sacrificed.

Experts point out that had mild restrictions been imposed in summer, the big crisis would have been averted. The most likely reason for delaying the kickoff of crisis management is the local elections last October.

Angry citizens called protests and even a public prayer for rain / Photo by Oleg Popov/Nova

Angry citizens called protests and even a public prayer for rain. And if a prayer sounds bizarre, divine intervention is exactly what state officials also hope for, revealing the extent to which the state has abdicated from its habitual function of planning ahead for the basic life-sustaining infrastructures and how to avoid the likely disasters that can befall it. Take the deputy minister for regional development, for example. On January 2nd, he said there is enough water for 25 days and immediately contradicted himself by stating that he hopes the water crisis will be resolved in spring (presumably when the snow melts). 

Altogether over 315,000 Bulgarians experience mild to severe water disruptions and this number is expected to rise. The water crisis in Pernik raised concerns about the state of major dams in Bulgaria and Minister Avramova was forced to admit that several dams hold water for 6 weeks, 3 and 4 months respectively, provided the water stored is used only for drinking and not for industry.

Given the encroachment of industries on the water supply, that’s a big “if.” One of the endangered dams supplies the city of Botevgrad (pop. 30,000), where a private power plant consumed 1,2 million m3 of water in two weeks, leaving the city’s supplies at critically low levels. (In Bulgaria 140 such private power plants operate illegally, destroying the ecosystems of small rivers and exposing nearby settlements to flooding risk). The local authorities are helpless because the taps that can stop the inflow towards the plant are located on its premises, and the plant “self-regulates” its water supply.

Other cities in danger of water restrictions are Varna, Burgas and Sliven. Experts warn that the Minister’s scenario is way too optimistic given that it’s based on water level projections, which as in Pernik’s case, severely underestimate the actual water levels because no meters exists to measure them (before the Studena crisis resulted in frantic installation of such devices around Studena).

Minister Avramova depoliticized the crisis by blaming it on the continuous drought of summer and autumn of 2019, without mentioning at all the likely exacerbation of such conditions due to climate change. A recent report by the WWF warns of increased risks of draught throughout Bulgaria precisely on account of climate change. This is no news to the state–just а year ago the Environmental ministry’s own Climate Change Policy dept published a report outlining the biggest threats to Bulgaria. Unsurprisingly, drought is among them.

It remains to be seen when and how the state will finally begin acting on its own dire prognosis.

By Jana Tsoneva

Jana Tsoneva is a PhD student in Sociology at CEU, Budapest. Her research interests focus on the history of ideas, political economy and theory of ideology. Jana is a member of Social Center Xaspel, Sofia and of the New Left Perspectives collective. She also co-authors Hysterical Parrhesia (a Lacanian-Marxist blog).