Water sector in Serbia

Technical ArticlesSouth-East European INDUSTRIAL Мarket - issue 1/2021 • 30.03.2021

Serbia has relatively substantial surface water resources. Large international rivers (the Danube, the Tisa and the Sava) and small transboundary rivers account for 90% of all surface water resources that amount to some 162 billion m3 per annum. The country’s territory includes parts of the Black Sea Basin (through the Danube River Basin), the Adriatic Sea Basin and the Aegean Sea Basin. Most of Serbia (about 92%) is situated in the Black Sea Basin (the Danube River Basin).

The national government is responsible for water management via the Ministry of Environmental Protection, other ministries, provincial administrative bodies, agencies of local administrations, and government-held water management companies. The National Water Directorate at the Ministry of Environmental Protection fulfils major administrative functions related to water management. Three government-held water management companies operate in Serbia: Srbijavode, Vode Vojvodine and Beogradvode. Since March 2012, when Serbia was granted EU candidate status, its environmental policies and legal framework have been strongly influenced by the EU accession negotiations. The country is slowly adapting to the EU’s environmental standards.

Data from the Danube Water Program shows that groundwater provides 73% of the raw water used for drinking water supply, whereas it represents only 12% of the overall water abstracted in Serbia. Although there is some chemical contamination due to uncontrolled use of various pesticides, water quality is considered good. Surface water accounts for 27% of drinking water supply and 88% of all water uses. It is extracted from streams and accumulations, and its quality is at risk due to the presence of ammonia, nitrates, sulphides, iron, and mineral oils in the Tisa River basin; evaporable phenols and manganese in wells in the area of Backa; and arsenic in the rest of Vojvodina.


Wastewater treatment

Surface and groundwater, which form a natural source of drinking water, are often polluted with wastewater. This especially applies to industrial waste and landfill leachate that – to a large extent – are not treated. Wastewater treatment is of great importance to minimize the drinking water problem, which is directly associated with the health of the population. Water pollution is difficult to prevent and undo, but with the efficient treatment of wastewater its impact can be significantly curbed. This is achieved by frequent monitoring of wastewater quality and its recipients, through tests for harmful substances, etc., thus ensuring compliance with legal regulations. The main goal of the application of such measures is to reduce the impact of wastewater on surface- and groundwater conservation and improve its quality in order to be able to secure the longer use as natural sources of drinking water.

Main problems in Serbia’s water sector include: degraded quality of water bodies; large percentage of the population is not yet connected to the sewage system; inadequate maintenance of the old sewage systems; lack of data about the connectivity to the sewage system in some areas; discharge of untreated wastewater into water bodies, even from the big cities; unawareness of the population about environmental issues; unsatisfying analysis for the design of wastewater collection and treatment facilities; insufficient and inadequate public utility infrastructure (pre-treatment and industrial wastewater treatment); insufficient investments; lack of institutional capacity and complex administrative procedures.

According to a market survey by Flanders Investment and Trade on the water sector in Serbia, the country treats about 8% of its wastewater. In order to align with the EU environmental standards, 320 wastewater treatment facilities need to be constructed (a EUR 5 billion investment). The survey states that more than 50% of industrial facilities in Serbia do not treat wastewater yet, because there are no treatment systems in place.


Access to services

Nowadays, Serbia is one of least developed countries in Europe in terms of the state of utility services, while the numerous floods that have hit the country in the past additionally influence this sector. In most European cities the percentage of households connected to the sewerage system varies around 95%, while in Belgrade this number reaches only 85%. At the national level these indicators show an even worse situation, says Flanders Investment and Trade’s market survey. For example, data shows that in the Province of Vojvodina the same indicator is around 45%, while in central Serbia it goes even lower with around 37% of the population connected to the sewerage system.

Only three urban municipalities exceed the 75% rate: Kragujevac, Novi Sad and Sremski Karlovci. Statistical data from Flanders Investment and Trade’s market survey shows that agglomerations with a population below 25 000 are usually equipped with a general sewerage system while municipalities with 25 000 to 250 000 citizens have a separate storm water system. The results of an analysis performed within the project “Global Waste Water Study in Serbia & Pre-feasibility Study for Belgrade Waste Water Management” show that the percentage of the rural population connected the public sewerage system is about 9%.

Of the plants actually in operation, the majority favour secondary treatment, which produces water suitable for irrigation and some industrial purposes, but they are not entirely in compliance with EU regulations. The overall volumes of wastewater receiving treatment are relatively low since the majority of the treatment plants are already operating at full capacity. This problem is intensified by the fact that a number of the existing wastewater treatment plants have been decommissioned due to poor maintenance and lack of financial resources. To improve access to sanitation services, the Serbian National Environmental Strategy plans to upgrade the existing infrastructure, expand the sewage networks, and build primary and secondary wastewater treatment plants in 20 to 30 large agglomerations and hotspot locations. The plan also includes building sludge treatment facilities.

Another problem in Serbia’s water sector is the equity of access to services. According to data from the Danubis Water Program 22% of Roma settlements do not have access to water. Furthermore, according to a UNDP survey, 22% of the Roma population do not have access to an improved water source (compared to 1% of the total population), and 39% do not have access to improved sanitation (compared to 5% of the total population). A strategy for the improvement of the Roma’s position in Serbia was adopted in 2009. It is built around four priority areas for action: education, housing, employment, and health. So far some results have been achieved in the areas of education and health, but no real improvement has been achieved in employment and housing.


Service infrastructure

Serbia’s water sector assets need renewal and upgrading. A World Bank report shows that the water infrastructure in Serbia consists of 28 multipurpose dams and reservoirs storing more than 6000 Mm3, 56 water treatment plants, and a 38 653 km network. Water supply systems and distribution networks generally need reconstruction and upgrading in capacity and/or technology. Wastewater assets comprise 50 treatment plants and a 15 159 km network. The capacity and technology of wastewater treatment plants and collectors also need to be renewed and upgraded. Thirty-two plants are operational, but few of them according to the design criteria. Others work at lower efficiency than designed, concludes the World Bank’s report.

The quality of service in Serbia is good, but there are still some issues in terms of drinking water quality, states an analysis within the Danubis Water Program. Water service continuity in most cities is nearly 24/7, but problems of surface water quality and treatment cause significant health risks. Those drinking water quality issues are due to poor infrastructure and contamination of surface water with pesticides and heavy metals, especially in rural areas, where there is almost no quality control. The low number and efficiency of municipal and industrial wastewater treatment facilities also result in significant organic and inorganic discharge.


Efficiency and trends

Research shows that some important efficiency gains are still to be made. Few significant efforts have been made to transform public water utilities into more efficient organizations that work according to sound economic principles. Utilities are burdened with aging infrastructure, leading to energy and water losses that increase operational costs and lower net income. Despite the wage bill control from the Ministry of Economy the staffing level has been high and constant since 2008, and it remains very high at 11,9 employees per 1000 connections, compared to regional and international best practices (1 to 2 staff per 1000 connections). The limited productivity is largely a consequence of the direct control exerted by local government authorities over utility staffing and management. The billing collection ratio is below regional best practices and should be improved to ensure increasing revenues.

The water sector shows mixed efficiency results and trends, states the Danubis Water program analysis. The indicators mentioned above have followed different paths of evolution over the last 10 years. Overstaffing has decreased by 6% but remains high, nonrevenue water has increased by 13%, and the collection ratio has decreased by about 2%. As a result, no real efficiency gains have been made and no clear improvement of water and wastewater services efficiency has been achieved.



The Danubis Water Program identifies the main challenges for Serbia’s water sector as: strengthening and clarifying sector governance; ensuring tariff setting according to the cost recovery principle to improve overall performance in preparation for EU accession; enhancing water utility staff capacity and training.

To improve water policy efficiency, a clarification and definition of roles and duties is needed at the national level to address overlapping mandates among ministries in charge of water sector policies and regulation. Such a clarification will be particularly important to ensure an effective EU negotiation and accession process and a successful and sustainable infrastructure build-up. This would also fulfil the need for much broader involvement of all stakeholders in the process of planning and decision making in water and wastewater management, believe experts involved in the Danubis Water Program.

Because of the inflation cap imposed by the Ministry of Finance since 2004, water tariffs in Serbia are kept very low, which prevents utilities from recovering production costs, as well as capital expenditure. As a result, some utilities have significant losses, assets are not being properly managed and replaced; and conditions are not in place for the significant infrastructure development necessary to comply with the EU environmental acquis. Additionally, the education and training of staff at all levels of water utilities is key to ensure long-lasting operational efficiency and sustainability of the water sector.