An inter-municipal roundtable for the exchange of knowledge and experiences among local government units was organized on October 4, 2023, in Leskovac. This event brought together representatives from cities and municipalities in the southeastern region of Serbia. Among the attendees were representatives from 11 cities and municipalities, including Gadžin Han, Merošina, Ražanj, Svrljig, Niš, Surdulica, Bosilegrad, Bujanovac, Leskovac, Lebane, Vlasotince, and Pirot. The goal of this gathering was to facilitate the exchange of ideas and experiences in implementing the principles and objectives of sustainable development as defined in the 2030 Agenda, particularly in the creation of local policies essential for the daily lives of the citizens in this region.
At the outset of the roundtable, the crucial importance of planning at the local and republic levels was emphasized. Depopulation, particularly in southern Serbia, is a serious concern. By the end of the century, it’s projected that only 60,000 people may remain in this area, further complicating the situation. Decentralization and continuous local planning were recognized as crucial for addressing these challenges, enabling the making and implementation of effective decisions at the local level.
The first panel focused on supporting municipalities in the development of plans. It highlighted the need for greater collaboration with the civil sector in planning and monitoring the implementation of local plans, along with the pronounced problem of the lack of mechanisms for data collection and the mismatch between mid-term plans and program budgets.
During the roundtable, a best practice example from Pirot was also presented, emphasizing transparency, inclusiveness, and flexibility in the planning process. However, it was noted that despite five years passing since the adoption of the legislative framework for planning, Serbia is still lagging behind in developing development plans, with only 50% of municipalities having formulated development plans and just 18 with mid-term plans.
The lack of coordination between the Republic of Serbia and local communities further complicates the situation for local citizens, emphasizing the need for active involvement of civil society in the process of drafting local plans. In this context, the significant role of the “SDGs for All” Platform, which provides a space for dialogue between decision-makers, civil society, and other non-governmental actors, was highlighted.
The absence of organized public discussions during the process of adopting local documents was also presented as a problem. Only three municipalities in southern Serbia organized public discussions, even though it is a legal obligation. Citizens often lack sufficient interest in local decision-making, even when informed about the holding of public discussions.
The second panel was dedicated to environmental issues, particularly the pollution of surface watercourses, whether organic or accidental pollution, which quickly spreads downstream. Despite administrative divisions, we are closely interconnected environmentally. This raises the question of the need for water purification regulation at multiple levels – at the national, regional, local, and even within individual production sectors. The construction phase of the wastewater treatment plant in Leskovac went through various stages. However, the key challenge arises when atmospheric waters enter the sewage system leading to the plant. These atmospheric waters dilute sewage, undermining the efficiency of the plant. For proper functioning, a wastewater treatment plant that uses active bacteria for treatment must have separate systems for atmospheric waters, which are considered relatively clean, and systems for wastewater treated at treatment plants.
In the case of Vlasotince, the wastewater treatment plant is not operational due to the presence of various types of waste in the sewage system. This highlights the need for citizen education on proper waste disposal and wastewater management.
Furthermore, the inclusion of young people in local decision-making processes was also emphasized as important, especially when environmental protection issues are at stake. Young individuals are often not well-versed in local political processes, and there is a need to create opportunities for their active participation.
In conclusion, the roundtable emphasized the need for collaboration between citizens, local authorities, and the state to effectively address the challenges of sustainable development in southeastern Serbia. Only through joint efforts and inclusive processes can we create sustainable and prosperous communities.