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Re-establishing the basics

Immediate work is needed to turn around a decade of decay in Serbia's infrastructure.

The density of Serbia's road and rail networks is close to European Union standards, the legacy of intensive investment and development under the former Yugoslavia's liberal brand of communism. A map of Serbia also shows impressive industrial and manufacturing infrastructure, fossil fuel and hydro-electric power generating capacity, an extensive power transmission network, oil and gas pipelines, and a key position on Central Europe's principal freight transport corridor, the River Danube.

But in the mid 1980s 'Serbia went into hibernation. New infrastructure projects were delayed or cancelled altogether, ' recalls Aleksander Kovacevic, an engineering economist working for the United Nations Organisation for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Relief.

Deposed president Slobodan Milosevic suspended funding for maintenance, precipitating a decade of decline.

Now, after 13 years of keeping the country going using make do and mend initiative in place of capital investment, Serbia's engineers are contemplating the total disintegration of energy generation and supply, shipping and railway systems. The country is facing a winter without adequate heating and shortages of fuel, basic foodstuffs and medicines.

Estimated depreciation in the value of energy sector assets in the last five years is 82%. Similar rates of depreciation have been seen in road, rail, ports and water supply and sewerage infrastructures.

Problems affecting energy supply are comprehensive. Only 10% of plant needed for the extraction of lignate, used to power generating stations, is operational. Small lignate and coal reserves built up to get Serbia through this winter were used up during the miners' strikes which helped bring down Milosevic's regime. Oil storage tanks close to Belgrade and Novi Sad were destroyed by Nato bombs. The natural gas pipeline from the Hungarian border is operating well below pressure - blockages or leaks are suspected.

Serbia requires 3,000MW of new generating capacity and at least 6,000MW of existing capacity needs to be comprehensively overhauled. All oil-fired turbines in the Belgrade district are obsolete technology, reports Kovacevic. Some 30,000MW Amps of transformer capacity has been put out of action by bombing, poor maintenance and overloads. The transmission network should be comprehensively upgraded from 220kV to 400kV.

Refineries bombed by Nato at Pancevo on the Danube east of Belgrade and at Novi Sad need rebuilding with modern technology.

Serbia's energy infrastructure seems to be held together with string. Engineers have turned improvisation, cannibalisation of non-operational machinery and DIY manufacturing of replacement parts into a highly efficient system for keeping the country's energy industry going.

'People operating the equipment know how much they can bend standards, and what the equipment will tolerate. Work is being done to keep machinery running but it isn't exactly to international standards, ' Kovacevic reports.

He fears the involvement of Western firms in managing energy sector reconstruction could see remaining operational plants shut down on safety grounds. 'Two turbines were handed over to the United Nations administration in Kosovo last year, ' Kovacevic notes. 'They worked fine, in a Serbian fashion - they had been repaired with available parts and ad-hoc technology. But they have not worked since. The kinds of quality and standards normal for the UK engineers in charge doesn't allow them to start again.'

Roads are not regarded as an immediate reconstruction priority - damage from bombs has been repaired. However, in 1998 the European Investment bank calculated that only 30% of Serbia's roads were in good condition. Newly elected deputy minister for planning and construction Bratislav Ferencak says the condition of highways has deteriorated badly in the last two years and many roads in outlying areas are virtually unusable. Roughly 50% of roads will need wholesale reconstruction.

Serbia's rail network similarly needs extensive renewal and has some severe bottlenecks which will prove an obstacle to efficient freight transport. Track is not suitable for heavy freight.

And there are no high speed lines. All but 17% is single track and it is proposed future development involve insertion of short sections of double track, allowing trains to pass and dramatically increasing capacity.

According to Kovacevic, though, much of Serbia's infrastructure was built to a higher specification than demanded by the state. Despite the major cost of renewal, additional costs involved in upgrading will be relatively modest.

Serbia's single most pressing transport project is reopening the Danube to shipping. In 1990, 113Mt of cargo was transported on the river. Ten years on, the figure is close to zero.

Debris from bridges is blocking the river at Novi Sad, making it impossible to navigate up stream. Not only Serbia, but Hungary, Bulgaria, Austria and the Ukraine are suffering from shortages of essential raw materials as a result.

Additionally, it is feared that some 650t of reinforced concrete lying on the river bed, wreckage from a massive bowstring truss structure carrying road and rail, will trap ice this winter, creating a temporary dam which could flood the city.

The obstruction has diverted river flow, increasing scour and undermining the quayside of Novi Sad Port.

Serbia's blitzed bridges have become one of the defining images of what needs to be done to rebuild the country. Paradoxically, only two of the 69 bridges knocked out by Nato remain to be rebuilt. Milosevic pushed through their reconstruction to demonstrate Serbian strength in the face of European Union sanctions.

'Milosevic's whole political drive has been based around the reconstruction of Serbia - civil engineering has been a political tool, ' comments a Belgradebased consulting engineer.

But he says much of the work is poor quality and will need to be re-done. 'Projects looked good on television, but in reality were woefully underresourced.'

Belgrade facing a living nightmare A quarter of Serbia's 10.5M population lives in the capital, Belgrade. Numbers have been swelled by Serbian refugees from Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo - at least 330,000 are living in temporary accommodation. More than 1,000 new apartments are needed, says vice president of Belgrade City Council executive board Ljubomir Andjelkovic.

The city has failed to keep pace with demographic change, with 650-700 streets in Old Belgrade unconnected to the sewer system.

Boreholes, one of the main sources of drinking water, are in danger of being contaminated in some areas of city.

Meanwhile, close to 50% of all treated water is being lost due to a decade-long freeze on water supply pipeline renewals in Belgrade's 1,200km network. Construction of water treatment works for New Belgrade, housing 1M people, has run out of capital - buildings are complete but no equipment is installed. Over 1,200t/day of domestic refuse is produced by Belgrade which is disposed of at the city's only official municipal tip.

Capacity is exhausted and fly tipping is an acute problem.

Belgrade's overstretched utilities are further aggravated by 14,000 illegally built houses in Belgrade's suburbs. Many have connected to the service networks illegally.

Andjelkovic describes city transport as being in 'an ugly situation'. Only 500 buses, trams and trolley buses run from a 1,360 strong fleet. Road pavement is deteriorating badly and there are 600k-650k vehicles on Belgrade streets every day. Traffic planning is badly needed.

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