Balkans Crisis in the 1990s-early 2000s: Ecological and Technogenic Dimensions

The Balkan crisis of the 1990s and early 2000s was accompanied by the collapse of the Yugoslav Federation, interethnic conflicts, massive human rights violations and deaths of a large number of civilians. The consequences of the crisis were large, affecting all spheres of the internal and external life of the newly formed republics.

In the first post-war years, special attention was paid by the international community and the Western Balkan civic organizations to the restoration of social infrastructure, housing, transport communications, the reform of the political-legal and judicial systems, the creation of a police force and the establishment of dialogue between different ethnic groups. At the same time, significant efforts were made to gradually improve the situation in the humanitarian and medical spheres, to investigate war crimes, to overcome their consequences, and to search for persons guilty of violating human rights.

As long as the process of gradual peaceful reconstruction of states and societies was underway, the post-Yugoslav governments did not carry out much in the environmental and environmental areas. Although international and local biologists, environmentalists, experts, as well as doctors have repeatedly stressed that the crisis and long-lasting hostilities in the territory of the former Yugoslavia had a negative impact on the environment.

If after the cessation of the conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia in 1995, there was little talk of a man-made and environmental disaster, during the hostilities in Kosovo in 1999, they spoke about the first days of NATO’s air campaign in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It was due to the use by the alliance’s aviation of armaments filled with depleted uranium.

However, it is hard to insist on the fact that only the events of 1999 led to a deterioration of the ecological situation in the region, which resulted in a complicated technogenic situation throughout the Balkan Peninsula.

It should be noticed that military operations in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, and Macedonia were accompanied by the use of various weapons, land mines, bombing, the destruction of factories and heavy and light industry plants. As a result, not only the environment of a particular region suffered but also neighbouring countries and their population. In this regard, we can say that the environmental and man-made effects of the Balkan crisis were no less extensive than humanitarian or political ones.

The destruction of industry and infrastructure

Permanent shelling of cities and small settlements in the 1990s and early 2000s by the armies of the belligerents and NATO aircraft led to the destruction of not only civilian infrastructure. Bridges, railways, industrial facilities, hydroelectric power stations were destroyed or very damaged. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia, where the most violent and intense confrontation took place, had undergone massive destruction. In particular, during 1991-1995, in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, Serbian artillery shells destroyed the enterprises of the metallurgical, chemical, defence and car manufacturing plants, factories that produced textile products, and mines. In addition, military actions led to the destruction of the sewage system, the waste from which came into the environment and reservoirs: rivers and lakes.

A similar situation was observed in Serbia, against which the North Atlantic Alliance applied aviation in 1994-1995, and then in 1999. The destruction of infrastructure and industry in this republic was more severe and catastrophic for the ecology and water system, as the NATO aircrafts dropped bombs on military and industrial facilities, Serbian military positions. This caused not only “targeted” destruction but also the destruction of everything that was nearby.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the first half of the 1990s, the weapons production plant in Novi Travnik and military enterprises in Banja Luka, Teslići, Gorazde, Priedaori were severely damaged. In Serbia, during March-June 1999, NATO bombs released by aircraft during Operation Allied Force struck the following objects:

  • Refineries in Novi Sad and Punchchev.
  • Yugo Automobile Plant in Kragujevac.
  • Machine-building factory “October 14” in Krushevac.
  • Industrial district in Nish.
  • Lucan Chemical Plant.
  • The factory in Valjevo.
  • The oil storage tank in Belgrade.
  • Chemical complex in Barichi.
  • Petrochemical plant in Novi Sad.
  • The Jugopetrol oil terminal in Smerdevo, Pristina, Sombori and Beopetrol in Belgrade, Krajevo, Pristina, Naftogaz in Sombor, etc.

In total, NATO aircraft in Serbia destroyed 78 industrial facilities and 42 power plants, as well as more than 20 chemical and petrochemical plants.

Artillery shelling and the use of aviation have led to the breakdown of traditional economics and economic ties between regions and enterprises. It should be emphasized that military actions destroyed the transport and energy system that was formed in the Yugoslav Federation after the Second World War.

Shots and aviators caused severe fires during which a release of harmful substances into the air took place. For example, the atmosphere contained many toxic compounds, dioxides, and elements that are formed when certain chemicals with oxygen and nitrogen combine. The fire destroyed large parts of industrial areas and complexes, forests and agricultural lands. Because of this, poisonous substances were found in the soils and underground waters, which affected adversely the yields and fertility of the soils. The latter also absorbed harmful chemical elements that were released after the destruction or damage of oil, refineries, and tanks where fuel and lubricants were stored. The situation was also aggravated by emissions from automotive, textile, defence and military enterprises where chemical compounds, substances, and metals were used in production.

Thus, the destruction of industrial infrastructure and production capacity in all the republics of the former Yugoslavia has led to an industrial and environmental catastrophe. First of all, poisonous emissions in the reservoirs led to the destruction of many species of riverine plants and animals. The biggest water artery of the Balkans, the Danube River, was badly polluted. On its banks and in the water, scientists recorded the concentration of heavy metals that threatened the health of people and animals and negatively affected the ecological system of the peninsula, as well as poisoned drinking water. Floods of the air masses have spread harmful emissions far from the Danube – to the Adriatic, Black and Mediterranean seas. Long after the cessation of active military actions, water and air samples near the coast of Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, as well as in the atmosphere showed that the content of harmful substances and heavy metals exceeded the norm by several times.

Pollution of the environment

There is a reasonable number of researches dedicated to visible consequences of the Balkan crisis of the 1990s and the early 2000s. However, there are issues which are the subject of interest only for ecologists and environmental advocates. For decades, they make every attempt to draw attention of politicians from the Western Balkans and other countries of the Balkan Peninsula to the fact that conflicts in the former Yugoslavia affected negatively nature, ecosystem, water resources, mountains, and forests. Local environmental organizations cooperate actively with international and European organizations aiming to clean lakes and rivers, as well as the environment in general from chemicals, heavy metals, and shells. Undoubtedly, these measures are not sufficient on a global scale, so the results throughout Serbia or Bosnia are mostly not palpable. Local nature of civic initiatives does not allow to reproduce quickly the water system: for example, make the Danube safe for navigation and recreation.

Water resources

Water reservoirs, including the river Danube, the Adriatic Sea, lakes, mountain reservoirs, urban sewage, have been polluted since the first days of active military operations in the then Yugoslav Federation. From October to December 1991, hundreds of artillery shells shot by the Serbs fell into the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Dubrovnik. The situation was the same in other cities of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Serbia. It was the artillery shells that led to water pollution in the region endangering the hydro systems and making the civilian population suffer. Poisonous substances that hit the rivers after the destruction of the objects of the chemical, oil and metallurgical industries, posed a threat to the health and life of the civilians. The situation was aggravated by the fact that shells were infiltrated constantly into water treatment plants and sewage. In many cities, in particular, Sarajevo or Dubrovnik, problems with drinking water had begun since the very first days of the war. International organizations operating in the region stressed that it would lead not only to a humanitarian catastrophe but also to an environmental disaster. In order to prevent the spread of diseases that could penetrate the human body through drinking water, the workers of the International Red Cross and various humanitarian institutions of the United Nations and the EU included in the humanitarian cargoes clearing facilities, filters, and tablets for water purification. Such measures indicated that it was dangerous to drink tap water from the occupied Sarajevo or in Belgrade where the treatment facilities did not work in 1999.

In addition to artillery shells, bombs fell into the Danube River, which either broke through the water or continued lying there unexploded. This is a potential threat that can explode at any time, causing an ecological catastrophe in countries situated on the both banks of the Danube.

Military actions caused the collapse of bridges, hydro and electric stations located in large and small cities alike. The collapse of bridges, hydroelectric power plants, TPPs, waste from station activities fell into the water during the shelling, thus interrupting water currents and processes. It is quite dangerous to swim in such polluted rivers, although the ecological situation in recent years has improved after to the purification of the Danube, Savva, Moritz, Moravia, Neretva, and other rivers.

Rivers, especially in hard-to-reach regions of the former Yugoslavia, were used to conceal crimes. Bodies of illegally killed civilians or prisoners of concentration camps were dumped into the water. This method relates to slow sources of water pollution as the human body decays gradually, releasing pathogenic microbes and harmful gases. Most often rivers were used as mass graves in Croatia, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In order to prevent an ecological disaster and the spread of diseases through sewerage, it is imperative to put filters on the taps in residential buildings. Since the mid-1990s, when the post-war reconstruction of social and residential infrastructure began, at the urban wastewater treatment plants several levels of water treatment were set.

Forest resources

The woodworking industry was actively developing in the 1940s-1980s, but the vast majority of enterprises ceased operations with the onset of conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The use of forest resources under Joseph Broz Tito was rational and then had become uncontrolled due to the needs of wartime. So, residents of the occupied cities had been cutting down trees to heat their homes, hospitals, and roast homemade stoves in cellars and secret stores.

In a post-war period, forests, greenery, and parks still had been destroyed for the same reasons, since central heating was restored relatively slowly.

Negative environmental consequences of the Balkan crisis include the ill-considered establishment of refugee camps and internally displaced people. According to the environmental organizations of the Western Balkans, temporary centres for victims of ethnic cleansing, deportations, forced evictions, the workers of the International Red Cross and the UN humanitarian bodies were created in the territory of nature reserves and protected areas. The circumstances of wartime did not provide for a special choice of place for the creation of camps and centres which gave a temporary shelter for refugees from hostilities. Residents of protected areas and their livelihoods affected negatively local ecosystems and the environment. First and foremost, the forests that were cut down for heating and cooking suffered.

Atmospheric pollution

The destruction of enterprises in the petrochemical, oil refining, oil, automotive and defence industries have led to emissions of toxic and hazardous substances into the air. Their concentration used to be the greatest where the large industrial complexes and storage tanks for oil, gas and fuel materials and chemicals were located. Hazardous elements and heavy metals have fallen into the soil and underground waters through precipitation and returned to the atmosphere in the form of other organic compounds as a result of evaporation and formation of gases.

Pollution of the atmosphere was dangerous for people breathing air along with saturated radioactive compounds and radiation. The situation was aggravated by the airliners of the North Atlantic Alliance which dropped bombs enriched with impoverished uranium in the territory of Serbia. After the end of the bombing, Serbian doctors began noting the increase in the number of cancer and skin diseases. It was a consequence of radiation exposure to the environment, weakened human health and increased toxic chemical elements in water and air. Cases of such diseases were recorded in the neighbouring countries of Serbia: Bulgaria, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Romania.

Mine danger

Since the end of the active phase of conflicts, mining problem has remained a separate dimension of the environmental consequences of the Balkan crisis. The territory of the former Yugoslavia is one of the most dangerous in Europe as large areas of Serbia, Kosovo, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina are still mine-infested. For the most part, it is anti-aircraft, anti-tank, land mines which used to be installed by Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian Army and the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Minefields are dangerous for people and the environment. It is sufficient to install several land-mines or anti-personnel mines prohibited by the International Convention (1997) in the forest, a mountainous area, a field near the settlement, and the territory immediately becomes deserted. It happened in the former Yugoslav republics. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 2017-2018, 2.2% of the state’s territory was mined. According to various estimates by the Center for the clearance of Bosnia and Herzegovina, this amount varied from 75 thousand to 80 thousand miles. On a map drawn up by the employees of the organization, 129 communities and cities were recognized as dangerous. This is about 1.4 thousand dangerous powers threatening 545.6 thousand inhabitants of Bosnia and Herzegovina (15% of the total population of the state). The most dangerous communities include Doboi, Terlich, Maglaj, Usor, Zavidovichi, Gorny Vakuf, Sanski Most, Velika Kladush, Travnik, and Ilyigash. In addition to land mines, there are combined and cluster mines in Bosnia and Herzegovina that constantly threaten the environment and civilians.

In Croatia, mines remain in 355.6 km2 of the state. There are 8 districts and 54 towns in this area. As in neighbouring countries, mines “polluted” forests, mountains, former agricultural fields, and farms.

In Serbia, after NATO’s air campaign, more than 60 aviation and cluster bombs remain in water, land, and destroyed industrial facilities. In addition, the territory of the republic is mined by land mines located along motorways, banks of the Danube and Savva, in the forests and residential neighbourhoods of large cities. Minefields, in particular, are located near the borders of Serbia with Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The total area of ​​the “contaminated” territory is 510 hectares, which can contain approximately 8,5 thousand anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. The concentration of cluster bombs is considered to be Nish, Kraljevo, Kurushylya, Seenitsa, Kopaonika, and Vladimirs.

Conducting any economic activity in such areas is dangerous both for people and for the environment. Taking into account the potential threat of minefields, large areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia turn into a waste overgrown with grass, and become unfit for life. The mine clearance is carried out by specialists from regional mine-clearing centres and a number of international companies, including private firms. The slow process, however, shows positive trends. Specialists are trying to dispose of it in such a way as to minimize damage to the environment and people. Cases of unauthorized disposal of mines or cassette bombs lead to tragic consequences: not only people, including children, get killed but the forests, rivers, lakes, soils, animals, birds are being polluted.


The ecological and technogenic dimensions of the Balkan crisis of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s can be divided into visible and invisible ones. The first category includes the destruction of industrial facilities and the infrastructure that is associated with them. Their destruction provoked a number of man-made problems in the republics of the former Yugoslavia and a humanitarian catastrophe. The second category covers pollution of nature, natural resources, land, air and negative impact on human health. The consequences of these processes are felt by post-Jugoslav societies gradually facing them in everyday life. To address these problems, it is necessary to apply the integrated approach and efforts of the public, international and European organizations, government structures and environmental activists. The inhabitants of the states themselves should not stand alone, as each of them in one way or other touches on man-made or environmental problems of conflicts that ended more than 20 years ago.

Kateryna Shymkevych, PhD in History, Balkanist, Analytical Center for Balkan Matters (Analitychnyi tsentr balkans’kyh pytan’)