Defying Health Risk, Kosovo Sells Coal to Citizens Over Winter

The energy crisis has prompted Kosovo’s Energy Corporation to sell and even give away coal – despite concerns about the likely impact on people’s health.

During winter, the box of a wood-burning stove must be filled with coal about six times a day to heat a standard sized house in Kosovo. 

Along with the heat, an unpleasant smell and smoke from burning fossils emitted from three kilometers below the surface of the earth, begins to spread.

To keep the temperature level, the stove must be kept saturated with coal – a fuel that pollutes the air and damages human organisms. 

Despite the health risk, however, coal is still seen as an important means to heat homes in Kosovo.

Even though for years citizens have heard institutional promises to promote energy from renewable sources, to ensure heating over this winter and to mitigate the current energy crisis, with the recommendation of the Emergency Technical Committee established by the Ministry of Economy, the Energy Corporation of Kosovo, KEC, is not only selling coal to citizens but again giving it away for free to its workers.

Some 95 per cent of the energy produced in Kosovo comes from coal. Besides generating electricity from the Kosova A and Kosova B power plants in Obiliq, coal remains the main source of heating in private houses.

Kosovo is rich in lignite, a soft coal content that is the most polluting version of coal, because it creates toxic pollution when it burns.

Thus, the hidden cost of this “cheap” energy is the health bill that Kosovars pay though flu, respiratory and lung diseases that citizens, children and the elderly in particular, suffer as the result of polluted air.

Photo: Antigonë Isufi/BIRN

We know it’s harmful but have no choice’ 

The eight-member Gërguri family, from Bardhi i Madh in Fushë Kosovë, plan to buy 10 tons of coal from the KEC this winter to fire up two stoves and one wood-fired stove.

They are aware that coal is harmful to their health but see no other solution to get through a difficult winter.

The KEC plans to sell for citizens a total of about 150,000 tons of coal in the mine of Sibovc in Obiliq.

But the government has also ordered the KEC to give away tens of thousands of tonnes of coal to its 3,6000 workers to heat their homes – eight to 10 tonnes per person – as the country braces itself for more power-cuts during winter.

On September 21, the Ministry of Economy decided to give the KEC workers free coal. This decision was taken almost four years after the then Minister of Economy, Valdrin Lluka, in 2018, stopped giving coal as a gift to workers, to curb air pollution.

Informed that KEC will sell coal for 60 calendar days to citizens and businesses during this winter, Hashim Gërguri has decided not to buy it from illegal traders this year but from the KEC itself, because of the favourable price.

The coal costs 15 euros per tonne, plus 30 euros to load a truck of ten tonnes, plus 2.40 euros per km for transport. By a simple calculation, the Gërguri family will pay about 250 euros for a truck load.

“We use coal even though we know it is harmful, but we have no other way out, we have no other solution, and we only use coal for heating,” the 54-year-old told Prishtina Insight.

Air pollution from the worst pollutants, including coal, causes diseases to the respiratory, cardiovascular, nervous and reproductive systems.

Shpëtim Thaçi, pulmonologist of the University Clinical Center of Kosovo, explained the consequences of use of coal for heating to Prishtina Insight.

“As a result of coal pollution, there is a higher possibility of developing diseases such as chronic bronchitis. At the same time, it is thought that the particles released from burning coal also affect the development of lung cancer, so affecting the life of these patients” says Thaçi.

 The head of the Gërguri family, Hashim, is aware of the health consequences of burning coal. The family has tried using wood for heating, but it was unaffordable.

“A coal truck costs about 250 euros, which lasts us one winter. If we use wood, we’d need about 15 meters, which would cost about 1,200 euros,” he says.

To treat lung diseases caused by pollution, it costs the state and citizens far more than the heating bill. Treating the effects of air pollution on the respiratory system is expensive.

The estimated total economic costs of polluted air on human health in Kosovo range from 37 to 158 million euros per year, or 0.89 to 3.76 per cent of GDP, according to the action document “EU for Environment”. 

“The treatment of these diseases in a period of one year is about 500 euros per patient. A person who suffers from chronic diseases is forced to use chronic therapy, which is a very expensive therapy, known as triple therapy,” adds Thaçi.

According to him, triple therapy medications are extraordinarily expensive, not including the cost of patients being hospitalized for more than a week or two.

On the other hand, Gërguri says they have used coal so much that they have become immune to the bad smell that overtakes their house in winter. He says that if the institutions offered them a better option for heating, they would gladly give up coal.

Some residents of Zhilivodë and Stroc, villages near Vushtrri, where locals illegally extract coal from large coal pits for home use, told Prishtina Insight that this coal is their only financially viable heating source.

Throughout their lives, these villagers have extracted coal and sold it and also used it for their own heating, not because they love this work, which is dangerous for their health, but because they have no other choice.

“We were born and raised here; what to do and how to live differently? If institutions find us better jobs and offer better solutions for heating, I would leave this job today that endangers my life as much as it helps me with my life,” a resident of Zhilivoda who wanted to stay anonymous told us.

Photo: Antigonë Isufi/BIRN

No capacity to treat all patients of pollution diseases

Ali Xhigoli, 64, has been heating his house with coal for as long as he can remember. He works at KEC but has tried to use other materials for heating, which he did not succeed in doing due to the high cost.

This year, he received nine tons of coal for free from KEC, and bought another six tons.

Xhigoli, head of the family of five, does not see any other solution at the moment, even though people know that they will suffer from the complications coal causes in people.

Although there is no database on the number of deaths due to polluted air in the Central Clinical Hospital, pulmonologist Thaçi says that during the autumn-winter season there is a large influx of people who have to be hospitalized at the Pulmonology Clinic.

“The needs and capacities of such a clinic must be increased considering that we have a high degree of pollution, so the possibility of developing various pulmonary diseases is higher and our capacities are often full as a result of the great need for treatment,” he explains.

The Pulmonology Clinic has only 66 beds, which, Thaçi says does not even meet the usual needs for hospitalization of patients.

According to the EU for Environment document for 2021, about 760 people die prematurely every year in Kosovo from air pollution.

Thaçi emphasizes that this is a consequence of the burning of harmful substances for heating in a larger quantity than usual. He says these diseases are directly related to the level of pollution and to the time period that people breathe this air.

Data from the World Health Organization show that the combined effects of ambient air pollution and indoor air pollution cause about 7 million premature deaths per year.

Household air pollution was responsible for an estimated 3.2 million deaths per year globally in 2020, including over 237,000 deaths of children under the age of five.

Energy crisis revives use of fossil fuel

“It will be a difficult winter,” are words often heard in the country even before the end of the last winter.

The energy crisis that has gripped Europe since last year has left big scars in Kosovo families and businesses.

European states have been grappling with the energy crisis caused by the big increase in gas prices, a fuel on which most European countries depended heavily.

An expert from the World Organization for Environment, Krenare Salihu, told Prishtina Insight that the Green Agenda and European targets for decarbonization have been “quietly” displaced from the priorities of some EU countries. 

Among other promises, the Kosovo government promised to follow policies to reduce the use of coal, an agenda which has already been a promise of various governments.

With the energy crisis, without other solutions, this promise has been silently pushed aside.

KEC spokesperson Skender Bucolli told Prishtina Insight that the decision to sell coal is unprecedented. No other government in the past had allowed KEC to sell its coal to citizens for heating.

The decision to allow the KEC to sell coal, taken by the Vetëvendosje government, is a part of measures adopted to alleviate the energy crisis and refers to the recommendation of the Emergency Technical Committee.

In the meantime, investors in renewable energy complain of a deliberate policy to dissuade them from investing in renewables in Kosovo, pushing them to go to Albania and North Macedonia, where the procedures are more efficient and faster.

Viola von Cramon, EU rapporteur in Kosovo, said bluntly on her latest visit in Kosovo that “there is no political will” to promote renewable investment in Kosovo.

“There is a lack of political  will, and big insecurity about how to do this. I guess the main engineers, the main people who are in charge of this energy system, may be a little bit older and not so advanced in terms of renewable and progressive and decentralized energy,” Von Cramon said in an interview for BIRN.

The sale of coal is expected to last from October 20 to December 20, while after this, atmospheric conditions will most likely not allow the KEC to continue this, says Bucolli.

According to the EU’s 2022 Progress Report for Kosovo, in addition to being a major source of greenhouse gasses, coal causes serious health and environmental problems.

“The Government of Kosovo has drafted an ambitious energy strategy, which includes even more participation of renewable energy sources, however, due to the energy crisis, the adoption of this strategy has been delayed,” the report reads.

But, Salihu says that it is well known that Kosovo is facing a difficult winter in terms of energy supplies, but very little is being said about how it is also facing “suffocation” in terms of air pollution.

“The global energy crisis has found Kosovo unprepared to meet the needs of energy supply from domestic production. This crisis has ‘surprised’ Kosovo, as snow often ‘surprises’ us in the middle of winter,” she told Prishtina Insight.

Energy and the environment have not been a priority in governments so far; not enough has been invested in energy efficiency in public and private facilities, she estimates.

However, in June, the Ministry of Economy allocated 6 million euros for subsidizing economic efficiency equipment, which it said will benefit 10,000 families.

This applies to houses that are insulated and use a heat pump, an air-to-air heat pump of the inverter type with high efficiency, biomass boilers (wood, pellets, briquettes) and individual biomass stoves.

Coal power-plants in Obiliq.Photo:Urim Krasniqi/ BIRN

Still dependent on coal

Kosovo’s dependence on coal has been noted by the European Commission. Among other things, it has emphasized that Kosovo remains dependent on coal, while only limited progress has been noted in the field of renewable energy sources.

KEC extracts an average of 8 to 9 million tons of coal per year for power plants, while selling 200 to 400,000 tons per year. Official data show that Kosovo has the world’s fifth largest lignite reserves at 12 to 14 billion tonnes.

On other hand, Krenare Salihu says reducing pollution is essential for a healthy society.

“Supplying households with coal and increasing the use of wood as fuel for heating is expected to choke the air in winter,” says Salihu.

According to her, air pollution must be addressed urgently, as it is one of the main factors that causes diseases in the respiratory system, and premature death.

The report on air quality published in 2018 by the European Environment Agency said that 3,700 people died in Kosovo from polluted air in one year.

Kosovo ranks in 69th place out of 118 countries in terms of air pollution, according to the Air Quality Index.

Illustrations for Prishtina Insight by Diellza Gojani.


27 October 2022 - 13:03

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