As winter draws in and snow settles on the peaks and hills of Kosovo, the permeating odour from burning firewood and pellets, becomes an inescapable part of reality. But the problem goes far beyond a pungent smell and washing that reeks of smoke, as the fumes cause health problems for citizens and drive increased deforestation.
If you visit Kosovo any time between late October and March, you cannot help but notice a thick blanket of smoke hovering above the rooftops of its cities, and villages. Swirling grey tendrils wind around the streets and permeate your senses with a strong, ashy, and almost sweet odour. This is the smell of woodsmoke, a scent everyone here knows all too well.
Winters are always harsh in Kosovo, but this year, things are expected to be worse as the energy crisis has driven prices far beyond the reach of the average citizen. As the cost of electricity soars and the government warns of scheduled blackouts due to energy shortages, many are shifting their attention to wood which has also increased in price by 60%.
This situation puts Kosovo’s citizens in an impossible position: to struggle to pay their bills and deal with blackouts, struggle to afford inflated firewood prices, or quite simply, freeze. While many will opt to burn more firewood this year, that brings with it a raft of other issues.
Deforestation, both legal and illegal, has been long-term woe for successive governments. In addition, the shrinking of forests also means fewer trees to sink the carbon released into the atmosphere during the burning process. This results in heavily polluted air across the whole country throughout the winter.
While the energy crisis could drive forward a shift to cleaner energy, that will do little to help those who need help as the long, dark winter months start to draw in.
Albana Gjonbalaj lives on the outskirts of Pristina, and during the winter, she cannot see further than the first row of houses.
“I faced a situation when I cannot open my window to like, like in the fresh air because there is so much smell…”
She recognises that the permeating scent of woodsmoke is a hazard to people’s health but also understands that freezing is not an option.
“Even people who can afford to warm their houses with electricity or with heat pumps and even energy-efficient air conditioners, they will come to a situation when there will be power shortages, you know, electricity reductions and they will have to kind of get another alternative which is firewood.”
If more people switch to wood this winter, already high levels of harmful pollutant particles, could increase.
Professor Zeqir Veselaj, an environmental expert from the University of Prishtina, explains that the particles produced by burning coal and wood for heating also release huge amounts of Co2, making Kosovo one of the most polluted places in the EU, and even the world during the winter.
“Polls shows that premature deaths and other sicknesses related to the air, air quality and air pollution shows that Kosovo is staying in pretty high level of the list of EU countries regarding the pollution with particulate matters 2.5 and 10.”
But air pollution and the hazard it presents to human health and the atmosphere is not the only issue, with negative impacts set to multiply this winter.
“So the wood cutting will become higher in plants with deforestation and in this way, degeneration of our forests that are in pretty bad situation since the war there is no possibility to regenerate itself from the old cutting, it will become worse than it was it was before and it will influence also the quality of our air it will reduce the area of carbon capture from from the atmosphere,” he explains.
Indira Kartallozi, environmental and community activist and head of Kaledescope Futures has been tracking the issue of deforestation in Kosovo over 20 years and found astonishing results.
“If we continue with the same trend of losing the forest, we will not have any healthy forests by 2035. 7600 hectares over a 20 year period, which is 1.5 hectare per day,” she said.
She explains that the use of wood for heating and cooking is a part of the culture in many communities. Not only that, but many cut it to sell and bring in much needed income.
“We don’t want to point fingers, we want to create partners- we could engage people who cut wood to actually be allowed to cut it. But you can’t go and arrest illegal loggers….I want the illegal loggers to become forest rangers. If we managed to do that, that’s where we will have succeeded.”
With wood becoming expensive and contributing to an already difficult deforestation situation, not to mention the impact it has on the populations health, it is clear that Kosovo needs to speed up its shift towards sustainable energy.
The experts agree that solar power and wind power are the way forward, along with the use of heat pumps, retrofitting, district heating, and energy efficient heating and cooling methods, as well as boilers that run on biomass. The government has run subsidies for these matters but interest has been high, and cash has run out.
Kartallozi adds that her organisation is pushing for change at an institutional level, calling for changes in various laws relating to energy, VAT and infrastructure.
“So now we are trying to push the changes in law and procedures for families to be able households to be able to instal their own grids and whether there there is going to be any assistance to help them to do that. “
Pristina resident Albana Gjonbala knows that this winter will be difficult and smoky.
“I think the measures that have been taken, they have they should be they should have been done earlier, you know, but given the political situation, given the economical situation, not only in Kosovo. I think maybe this is the way this winter will pass it will be difficult, it will pass people will be looking just to go through the winter of however they can. But then the springtime and summertime it will be a good time to go through it a lot to take additional measures.”
But asides from this, a broader shift in mindset is needed.
“They completely change the attitude and the mindset. And this is what you need. You need to touch them in their hearts. You need to tell them about children and the future. But as long as we’re going to have that coal, and we do have coal, and we’re going to have a problem,” Indira said.
In the meantime, however, the pungent, sweet-smokey smell of woodsmoke continues to lie heavy over Kosovo’s towns and villages.