Croatia’s rural communities look to EU funds to improve infrastructure

13 Mar 2014

imagephOTO: UNDP

“Project hunters” provide advice on water supply and sewage treatment projects

Karlovac, 13 March 2014 – Funds from the European Union (EU) can be tapped to build new water supply systems, wastewater treatment plants and other infrastructure in rural communities in Croatia. This was the key message of a workshop organized in Karlovac on 13 March 2014 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Ministry of Regional Development and EU Funds. The workshop, attended by around 50 representatives of local governments and regional development agencies, is part of a larger project aimed at generating a catalogue of credible project ideas for implementation with EU funds in Karlovac, Lika-Senj and Sisak-Moslavina Counties. The aim is to channel EU funds to improve socio-economic prospects in Croatia’s least-developed and war-affected areas. 

Opening the workshop, Deputy Minister of Regional Development and EU Funds Jakša Puljiz underlined the vast opportunity that Croatia now enjoys to improve communal infrastructure in rural areas. But he also warned that accessing the more than EUR 1 billion in EU funds that are available to Croatia each year would not be easy. Applicants for EU funds will have to meet strict criteria and demonstrate not only how projects meet local priorities, but also how they contribute to EU-wide goals and targets. One aim of the workshop was thus to alert local stakeholders that help is available in preparing suitable projects. “The ‘project hunters’ project with UNDP is one of the ways in which the Ministry is helping local government units formulate valuable project ideas,” Puljiz concluded. 

“The EU strategy for 2020 can be explained in two words: growth and employment,” noted Vitalie Vremis, the UNDP Deputy Resident Representative. For Croatia, this means that any infrastructure projects submitted for EU funding need to show promise not only in improving local living conditions, but also in creating jobs and stimulating growth. Another concern is that local communities need to plan ahead to cover maintenance and running costs, even where the construction of new infrastructure is funded from the EU. In areas with high rates of outward migration, unemployment and poverty, this could prove a challenging equation. UNDP has been helping communities rebuild infrastructure for more than a decade, Vremis concluded, and its experts are available now to help unlock the potential of EU funds. 

The workshop included presentations by Hrvatske vode, the Croatian water utility, and the Ministry of Environment and Nature Protection to explain the regulatory framework that applies to water supply and sewage treatment infrastructure. To conform with EU Directives on wastewater treatment and drinking water quality, Croatia needs to install sewage disposal systems in 294 locations with at least 2,000 potential users, and ensure that every settlement with more than 50 inhabitants has a supply of potable water. Croatia’s Implementation Plan for Water Utility Directives identifies the agglomerations that are eligible for co-financing for water infrastructure projects from EU funds. New water-supply systems need to be in place by 2018, and new sewage systems need to be constructed by 2023. Hrvatske vode will provide technical assistance and help finance technical documentation for these projects. 

Project preparations are not simple. Feasibility studies need to demonstrate the cost effectiveness of projects and include a technical comparison of several alternatives, along with financial and economic analysis. An environmental impact assessment is also required. Experts do not see ecological requirements as an insurmountable obstacle, however, even in NATURA 2000 protected areas, since communal infrastructure can usually be built along existing roads without any detrimental impact on the environment. In addition, project budgets need to be planned in accordance with the national ordinance on eligible expenses

Among the conclusions reached during the discussion, participants agreed that local officials should not make infrastructure decisions in isolation; broad consultations are vital on all water supply and wastewater treatment projects to ensure that they genuinely meet local needs. This is an important consideration, given that Croatia will face penalties if actual user numbers are not consistent with planned targets. In addition, many projects which are already planned or being implemented need to be revised to ensure that they conform with Croatian and EU priorities. On the side of the national authorities, mandatory procedures and required paperwork need to be drastically simplified, and central institutions need to be more responsive and timely in providing relevant documentation and approvals by legal deadlines. 

The Karlovac workshop was the second in a series of thematic workshops organized as part of the UNDP project. The first, focused on opportunities in tourism, was held in Otočac on 7 March 2014. Other thematic workshops will be held later in the month. These will be followed by more in-depth consultations aimed at identifying and developing the most credible projects among the vast number of ideas under consideration – so far 450 ideas have been submitted in the three counties. This consultation process is expected to yield a catalogue of at least 51 priority projects to be submitted to the Ministry by the end of October 2014. In addition, project activities are designed to build the capacity of local stakeholders to design and formulate credible project ideas for future EU funds without outside help.