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Arrest of Bulgarian environment minister little consolation for 100,000 people facing severe water shortages

Environmentalists in Bulgaria are demanding that the country appoint a professionally competent individual with a responsible attitude to nature to replace Neno Dimov, who was forced to resign on January 10 following his arrest for deliberate mismanagement over severe water restrictions faced by nearly 100,000 people for about two months in a region of western Bulgaria.

Mr Dimov, Bulgaria’s environment and water minister since since 2017, was arrested on January 9 after police and prosecutors raided the environment ministry and several institutions in the city of Pernik, 45 kilometres southwest of Sofia, seizing documents and other data.

Prosecutors say that Mr Dimov failed to take proper measures to avoid a critical draining of a dam that provides drinking water to Pernik and its surrounding villages despite numerous warnings and reports of its decreasing levels.

“Some 97,000 people will not have normal access to drinking water in the next five months – which they would have had if the minister had exercised his authority,” Angel Kanev, a prosecutor told reporters. “This is the biggest damage,” he said.

Prosecutors allege that if the minister had forbidden the use of water from the Studena Dam – located 15 kilometres upstream of Pernik on the Struma river, and which is owned by the Bulgarian state – for industrial purposes, there would have been sufficient water to prevent shortages in Pernik. According to the law, priority should be given to the supply of water for domestic use.

For Nature, a coalition of NGOs which brings together tens of Bulgarian environmental pressure groups, claim that Mr Dimov is personally responsible for the water crisis in Pernik, and that the government must permanently abandon its current policy of putting private interests before the public, leading to catastrophes in the fields of environment, water, biodiversity and the fight against climate change.

Mr Dimov has also been criticised for trying to push through plans to allow construction in Pirin National Park, primarily the extension of the ski resort at Bansko. He has previously denied the idea of human-induced climate change and stated that global warming is a fraud, to scare people.

The European Union has opened 14 criminal proceedings against Bulgaria for its failure to comply with EU-wide environmental legislation.

“Neno Dimov should never have been appointed as the minister of environment and water,” For Nature said in a statement. “We hope that the government will finally understand the responsibilities that the environment minister has for the health and well-being of citizens and that this will make a difference in choosing a new one.”

Mr Dimov’s resignation will come as scant consolation for the residents of Pernik, who have already suffered water shortages for more than two months. The shortages have triggered a series of protests and prompted Bulgaria’s main opposition party, the Socialists, to seek a no-confidence vote in prime minister Boyko Borissov’s government.

Bulgaria currently faces some of the most serious environmental challenges anywhere in emerging Europe. Air pollution from industrial emissions, rivers polluted from raw sewage, heavy metals, detergents, deforestation, forest damage from air pollution and resulting acid rain and soil contamination from heavy metals from metallurgical plants and industrial waste have all created enormous problems.

Scientists at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences anticipate the spread of desertification, with the climate in Bulgaria becoming sub-tropical by the period from 2050 to 2080. A number of traditionally cultivated crops are expected to become unviable and expectations include the growth and spread of pest and disease species hitherto unseen in Bulgaria and resilient to the new climatic conditions.