PALAJ, Kosovo (Reuters) – Skender Smajli, 64, spends 15 hours a day on an oxygen tube because of what his doctors say is chronic pulmonary disease incurred from decades of exposure to air pollution emitted by old coal-fired factories common in the Balkans.
Smajli lives in a village outside the Kosovo town of Obilic, home to two coal-fired power plants of the sort blamed in part for planet-warming emissions causing climate change, the subject of global COP26 talks starting in Glasgow, Scotland on Oct. 31.
Recalling his days on the job before being forced to retire early on disability grounds, Smajli said he and co-workers “had to clean the furnaces where the coal was burned, at high temperatures, and with a lot of dust and ash.”
Besim Morina, a pulmonologist who has treated Smajli, said he was diagnosed mainly with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in which his work at the Kosovo Energy Corporation (KEK) plant “was the main factor”, as well as living close to it.
“Most of my friends (at the plant) have died from it,” said the white-bearded Smajli, who also has Parkinson’s disease.
Kosovo boasts one of Europe’s cheapest electricity rates, at just six euro cents per kilowatt hour (kwh), a legacy of its socialist past in old federal Yugoslavia and then Serbia until independence in 2008.
But environmentalists say the actual cost is much higher when the effect on public health of antiquated, coal-fired power plants are taken into account.
In a 2019 report, the World Bank said air pollution kills around 760 people annually in Kosovo, a tiny, economically deprived Balkan country of 1.8 million people.
“The municipality of Obilic has around 30 percent more patients with chronic respiratory disease and 30 percent more case of malign tumours (cancer) than other parts of Kosovo as a result of environmental pollution,” said Haki Jashari, director of the ambulance service in the town near the capital Pristina.
The six Western Balkan countries comprising ex-Yugoslav republics and Albania rely heavily on coal for energy, but will have to reduce that dependence dramatically as a condition for European Union membership to which they aspire.
The region is rich in lignite, a soft coal whose relatively low energy content translates to especially toxic pollution when burnt. Kosovo has the world’s fifth largest lignite reserves of 12-14 billion tonnes, official figures show.
Earlier this month, the European Commission urged Kosovo, which produces more than 90 percent of its electricity at the two Obilic plants, to wean itself off reliance on “health-hazardous energy supply” from coal.
The state KEK utility did not respond to a Reuters request for comment. Environmentalists say Kosovo would need EU financial support to convert to cleaner energy.
“The future of coal is underground,” said Besfort Kosova, of the Balkan Green Foundation. “According to our data, people (living in contaminated areas) lose around five years of life due to air pollution.”
(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Ivana Sekularac and Mark Heinrich)