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Roundtable Dialogue on wastewater solutions for Bulgaria and Romania - Report

New European Member States Romania and Bulgaria address the looming impossibility of achieving their obligations under the EC Urban Waste Water Directive and Water Framework Directive – roundtable in Sofia looks at solutions

24.04.2010 |Sascha Gabizon

Round Table Dialogue in Sofia, March 18, 2010

New European Member States Romania and Bulgaria address the looming impossibility of achieving their obligations under the EC Urban Waste Water Directive and Water Framework Directive – round table organised by WECF and Earth Forever in Sofia, looks at solutions

Dr. Krasimir Zhivkov, Governor of the Sofia Oblast, welcomed the more than 90 representatives of the Bulgarian and Romanian ministries of  Environment and Water, Public Works, Agriculture and Health, water operators, Basin Directorate, mayors, governors, NGOs, scientists, the World Bank, the European Commission and international experts from France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, United Kingdom and Slovakia who met for the “round table dialogue with the European Commission : how to reach sustainable and cost effective sanitation and waste treatment in Bulgarian and Romanian rural areas”

“How high will the sanctions be which the Bulgarian tax payers will have to pay for not fulfilling their requirements under the Urban Waste Water Treatment directive?” was one of the first questions posed to the representative of the Bulgarian Ministry of Environment and Water. Bulgaria has committed to assuring waste water treatment for all towns with 2000 to 10.000  inhabitants by 2014, but currently, no cost effective, feasible waste water concepts have been built in Bulgaria.

In Romania, in the last years a few hundred communes have obtained water supply and sanitation, but it remains a great challenge to provide the more than 3000 communes which still need waste water systems before 2018. “Therefore we are so interested by this round table, as we need low-cost solutions to be able to achieve the targets of the urban waste water directive, and the water framework directive”, said Mrs. Ileana Vasilescu, from the Romanian Ministry of Environment.

Professor Duncan Mara of the University of Leeds presented small-bore sewers and low cost waste-water stabilization ponds – of which over 5500 ponds are in use in Germany and France – to provide waste water treatment to small communities in Bulgaria and Romania. These waste water systems cost around 50% less then conventional systems. “If you really want to waste money, you can use standard size sewage pipes and conventional technical systems” said Mara.

The European Commission representative, Helmut Bloech, commented: “the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive does not prescribe technologies, but sets targets for environmental protection. Achieving these targets most efficiently, including with simplified sewers and lagoons for waste water treatment, makes only good sense”. Mr. Bloech commented on the fact that the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive does not specify criteria for communities with less then 2000 inhabitants, nevertheless: “It is unethical to forget about the rural populations where people drink from their shallow wells their own waste water or that from their neighbours”.

Mr. Bloech warmly welcomed the low-cost solutions of modern dry sanitation options which the NGO network WECF, together with local partners, implements in pilot projects for schools and households in Bulgaria and Romania as a reliable interim solution until water supply and waste water treatment are installed. WECF presented a “guidance paper on decentralized cost-effective waste water systems” at the conference, as a tool for local decision makers and water operators and engineers.

This guide book is a further development of the European Commission guide book on waste water systems for smaller communities of the year 2000, which can be downloaded from the EC website.

Robert Zvara, director of the Slovakian NGO Creativa, which builds low-cost onsite natural waste water systems, identified the 3 main barriers: a lack of national state of the art technical standards, a lack of funding for the small municipalities and a lack of experienced engineers in Slovakia who can provide a permit for low-cost waste water systems. “we have had to involve 3 engineers for the design of an extensive waste water system, from the Czech republic, the USA and then a Slovak engineer to put his stamp for the permit”. “We need help”, said Mrs Fakirova, the director of the Bulgarian Association of Village Mayors, and confirmed that villages cannot access funding for wastewater systems, and if programmes exist, they are not known. Also, the rural development fund which was launched in Bulgaria, has been put on hold. Another barrier to improve the terrible situation of school sanitation in rural areas is “that it is mostly unclear who is the owner, the state or the municipality”.
Professor Roumen Arsov,  from the University of Arcitecture, Civil engineering and Geodesy, confirmed “we know everything about the low cost waste water solutions, but, we lack of engineers with skills to design them and obtain permits”.

Engineer Andrea Albold explained that – as no Bulgarian engineer could be found – she had been commissioned to design the first-ever constructed wetland for wastewater treatment for a children’s home in Vidrare, Pravets municipality. “The technical design is ready, the money from the donor has been received, but, we cannot build, as we cannot get the permit. The legislation related to  giving a permission for non Bulgarian engineers to design projects to be implemented in Bulgaria, is a heavy one which needs time and resources to be fulfilled. One of the requirements for giving a  certification in Bulgaria, is that the foreign engineer has to have knowledge of Bulgarian language.. Also there is not a clear legislation for implementing demonstration projects".

Mr. Bloech of the European Commission, stated that he does not understand this vicious circle, that as long as no low-cost natural waste water systems has been built, no engineer has the experience, and can give the permit for such as system: “in this way, you will never have a first project”.

“We need to demonstrate these low-cost systems”, said Dr. Galia Bardarska of GWP Bulgaria, “too many too expensive waste water treatment plants are being build. Bulgaria is a poor country, people cannot afford to pay the same fees for waste water as in other European countries. I predict we will have to close these expensive systems as no-one can pay for them, they will be monuments for which we have wasted European and tax money. Citizens need to be involved in the decision making, and know what technology choices will mean for future consumer charges”.

“Master plans are going to be made for more than 200 communities in Bulgaria, to develop plans for the waste water systems, these will be discussed in the meetings of the local authorities, so citizens will be informed”, said Grigor Vassilev of the Ministry of  Regional Development and  Public Works. A main share of the funding for the master plans is provided by a loan from the World Bank.“I have seen masterplans in Romania, where the only technology option comparison made was to compare 3 different types of materials used for the sewerage pipes. That is of course not enough.” said Mr Köstner, representative of the Munich wastewater works “A technology comparison should be obligatory, and should include a cost-benefit comparison over a period of 20 to 50 years, for the investment, reinvestment and running costs”, added Dr. Wendland of WECF.

The Munich wastewater works created a non-profit advisory foundation in Timisoara where local authorities from Romania can get independent consultancy. “I have not yet met a mayor of a local village who can check the design of a waste water plant, and then say to the consultant: sorry engineer, but this pipe is too long and that pump is not needed”, says Mr. Peter Köstner.
The consulting company SHER from Belgium, presented a survey carried out for the Bulgarian ministry of Agriculture. The survey covered 32 villages from all different regions and different climate and geographical areas. In 50% of the villages, the tap water contained un-allowed bacteria. In one village, a drinking water well had been transformed into a pit-latrine, thus directly contaminating the ground water table with bacteria and nitrates.
“This contradicts the official water quality data” commented Mr. Dimitar Dimitrov of the Bulgarian ministry of Health. He wondered why so much money is going to wastewater treatment instead of investments in improving drinking water supply.

SHER identified the most appropriate and cost-effective wastewater solutions for 5 of these villages, all 5 with very different geographical and settlement structures. The different systems proposed included reed-bed filters, bio-disks, wastewater lagoons and combined septic tanks for clusters of houses. “Conventional waste water systems are not affordable for rural communities. It are these type of alternative low-cost technologies, adjusted to the local conditions, which are necessary”, concluded Olivier Demeure of SHER.
“This is the only study of its kind in Bulgaria”, commented Mrs. Kecheva, deputy mayor of Belovo, “I hope we can all get copies to share with our colleagues, as these are the type of low cost technical solutions we need”.

“The problem is that engineers earn most money with expensive projects”, commented Prof. Mara. “Engineers are paid based on a percentage of the investment volume. This is anti-low-cost practice”. Ministries should impose a change of fee structure, engineers should be paid be flat rates. “And if the consultant has not considered low cost technology in the technology option comparison, he should not be paid”, says Mara.In Germany, engineers are paid to check the planning done by other engineers, and who are paid 10% of the cost savings found in the plans of his colleague engineer, commented Mr. Köstner.

We need to address the  ministries of environment and agriculture to provide funds from the rural development fund and the Ministry of  Regional Development and Public Works to give permits to demonstrate the various different natural waste water technologies – lagoons, reed bed filters, onsite systems, small bore sewage – only then can we develop capacity of local engineers and develop national state-of-the-arte technical standards, commented Dr. Claudia Wendland from WECF. The Ministry of Regional Development and  Public Works admits that work is being done on updating technical standards, in collaboration with the standardization working groups of the German Water Association, but for the time being these focus on the more high-tech solutions such as vacuum systems.

The deputy mayor of Belovo , Mrs Kecheva, recommended to create an inter-ministerial and stakeholder advisory committee, to start building pilot low-cost wastewater plants. Responding to the question if the European Commission DG Environment could not provide funding for the pilot waste-water projects, Mr. Bloech commented that the LIFE+ funds are for demonstrating new innovative environmental technologies. The low cost ponds, lagoons and constructed wetland technologies “are proven technologies widely used in other EU member states, there is no reason why Bulgaria and Romania should not apply them right away”.

“We need to educate the public”, said Emilia Kraeva of the Bulgarian Ministry of Environment and Water, “currently rural communities want to have the same expensive systems as towns”.

“I am pledging my personal commitment to bring the results of the roundtable to the highest level of my ministry” concluded Grigor Vassilev of the Ministry of Regional  development and   Public Works.

More information, the announcement, invitation and discussion papers and background articles can be found here

A description of the design of the constructed-wetland wastewater treatment system by Otterwasser and WECF for the children’s home in Pravetz, Bulgaria, can be found here

  • Bistra Mihaylova, WECF, bistra.mihaylova@wecf.eu
  • Dr. Claudia Wendland Claudia.wendland@wecf.eu
  • Diana Iskreva, Earth Forever, diskreva@gmail.com

This project is funded by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety and the German Federal Environment Agency in the frame of the Advisory Assistance Programme for Environmental Protection in the Countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia

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