The summer of 2021 was the fifth warmest summer in Serbia in the last 70 years, with a higher than average number of days having temperatures over 30 degrees. In certain parts of the country, the summer was not only hot, but also extremely dry.
The consequences of such weather were deeply felt by the people living in the villages scattered around the Zlatibor region, which saw its fourth driest summer since 1950.
Goran Ilić nearly lost everything due to a forest fire, which stopped just 100 metres from his house. Because of the extremely high temperatures and inaccessible terrain, it took five days to put out the fire, which devastated 150 hectares of pine forest. One of these hectares belonged to Goran, destroying the source of the firewood he sells and uses for heating. The fire also destroyed a hectar-sized field close to his house, which he used for grazing his sheep and cows.
”The closest field now is on top of the mountain, some four kilometres away,” he says. His only choice is to leave his cows there, since they would not survive a daily commute across such hilly terrain. Every day, he and his wife drive to the field to milk the cows for making cheese and kajmak, which provides part of their income. Despite the damage and loss, Goran has no plans of leaving his land because, as he says, he has nowhere to go. And though the forest is irretrievably lost, he hopes the pastures will be washed clean by the rain and recover.
Milorad Luković also sells milk and the renowned Zlatar cheese, a Serbian brand with a protected designation of origin. The dry summer left him and his neighbours, around 550 households in nearby villages, without food and water for 6,000 dairy cows. Milorad doesn’t remember the pastures ever going completely dry. He had to purchase hay from over 300 kilometres away to feed his animals.
Once drought sets in, the taps in his and his neighbours’ houses will also remain dry. The pipes bring water from nearby springs, which currently don’t have enough water to supply the households.
So, they drive every day to the small Vrševina lake to pump water into their cisterns and deliver it to their cows. Despite the efforts, his milk yield dropped by one third which, together with the additional costs towards feed, left Milorad’s household in the red. They will have to resort to spending their savings to survive the winter.
Nearby Bukovik village also struggles with the same water shortage. They take their cisterns to the spring – some every other day, some up to four times a day, to fill it up for their cattle and to use at home.
Further to the north, Milan and Miloš Jovanović work the land inherited from their father, among the fertile Vojvodina plains. The maize they grow feeds their pigs and chickens. They rely on the sun and warmth, which maize stalks needs to grow in the spring, and on the rain during the summer when kernels start growing. The weather failed them this year. Cold spring nights and major differences between night and daytime temperatures meant the maize stalks stagnated and, in July, when it was most needed, the rain did not come. The brothers estimate the maize yield this year will be 20 percent lower than expected; they will have to purchase additional feed for their animals. Milan says their future lies in irrigation, but this is a major investment and difficult to calculate when it will start paying off.
But only a couple of fields away, an investment is already paying dividends. In the middle of otherwise golden fields lie Nikola Lončar’s ten green hectares of arable land. This year, he managed to grow three different crops: sweetcorn, cabbage and peppers. The fleshy red pepper yield was up by 30 percent, due to the fact that Nikola’s farm has been “digitalised”.
He purchased a climate-smart system from the Mihajlo Pupin Institute which uses remote sensors to measure the temperature, humidity and acidity of the soil. It also reads weather data from the wireless weather station on his farm, to calculate the quantity of liquid fertilizer and water for irrigating the field.
According to Aleksandar Rodić, a scientist from the Mihajlo Pupin Institute, almost all of the agricultural farms in Serbia is made up of similar-sized farms as these two. But only 2-3% out of 430,000 agricultural farms are currently being irrigated.
How does this climate impact trickle down to the cities? About an hour’s drive away, the residents of Belgrade enjoyed the summer’s vegetable bounty in their markets, unaware of what their suppliers in the countryside had to go through to produce it. However, the high temperatures affected city dwellers more viscerally – as they were surrounded by concrete with few green spaces or while standing at bus stops. The summer of 2021 was the warmest in Serbia’s capital since 1888. During 44 consecutive nights the temperature did not go below 25 and one June day set a new record for the last 100 years with a temperature of 38.7.
In order to cool down, many residents of Belgrade resorted to nearby beaches, such as Ada Ciganlija. Even though it is only four kilometres away from the city centre, it’s a world away with its own micro-climate. Thanks to its forest, clearings and meadows, as well as being surrounded by water, Ada’s somewhat lower temperatures make the summer heat more bearable. The cool of Ada Ciganlija makes it an ideal place for the elderly residents of Belgrade where they spend time playing long games of chess, even when the city is 38 degrees.
Despite these short escapes, residents still have to return to their homes, where there aren’t enough trees or space to plant them. In addition to providing shade, trees have another important role to play - purifying the city air.
To improve the air quality in city areas where there is not enough room to plant trees, the scientists from the Institute for Multidisciplinary Research of the University of Belgrade have been working on other solutions.
Microalgae mirror trees’ purification abilities, but are 10 to 50 times more efficient in “sucking up carbon dioxide” from the air. They also absorb the noxious pollution particles from the air. The Institute has developed “liquid trees”, LIQUID 3, made up of a 600 litres aquarium with algae in it. LIQUID 3 “substitutes” two ten-year old trees or 200 square metres of lawn.
The first in Serbia was “planted” this summer in front of Belgrade’s city municipality building. A smart bench nearby, powered by photovoltaic cells, give citizens a chance to have a rest and recharge their mobile phones.
The weather conditions in Serbia will continue to change due to climate change. In the Western Balkans, temperature is expected to rise two times the global average due to many factors including coal burning and lack of adaptation measures. If global temperatures continue to rise, extreme weather conditions such as wildfires, droughts and major floods will intensify and become ever more frequent and longer lasting.
Human activity, namely the use of fossil fuels whose combustion produces emissions of greenhouse gasses (GHG), is the main driver of climate change. The increasing greenhouse effect and resulting planet overheating will cause the crops traditionally grown by Serbian farmers to produce lower yields, giving citizens less of the food they depend on. Springs, which during certain parts of the year have sufficient water to reach higher altitude villages, will dry up during the summer. The greenhouse effect will make city dwellers feel like ‘fish out of water’ during the summer.
To ensure long-term living conditions changes must be made, i.e. reducing GHG emissions, abandoning fossil fuels and switching to renewable energy sources, such as the sun and the wind. Many smart solutions for survival already exist, now we need to use them.
UNDP Serbia’s Climate Smart Innovation Platform, a partnership with the Global Environmental Facility and the Serbian government, is a match-making place to drive innovation, blending of finance, partnerships and knowledge-sharing. 12 innovative technological solutions are already in progress, with new business models for renewable energy production, energy efficiency, waste management, smart city infrastructure, biochar and new type of biomass production, new materials and urban e-mobility.