The water system in North Macedonia’s capital gets a boost, showing that development goes hand in hand with EU integration

Cities need to evolve constantly to deal with rapidly growing urban populations, climate change, and scarce resources. Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, is taking decisive steps to model itself as a green, functional and contemporary European metropolis.

That’s one reason behind a major push to protect the environment in the city through construction of a wastewater treatment plant that will bring sanitation services to over a half million people and reduce pollution of the Vardar, North Macedonia’s longest river.

To support this project, the European Union recently provided a €70 million grant, through the Western Balkans Investment Framework, the largest ever mobilised by the international financial institution for the country in the water sector.

“The Republic of North Macedonia has commenced negotiations with the European Union and is increasing activities that further this objective,” said Minister of Finance Fatmir Besimi at the signing ceremony for the grant. “Reforms aimed at bringing Europe home and implementing European standards in everyday life are picking up speed. We are also pursuing major infrastructure projects that will contribute to the overall development and growth of the economy.”

The signature by EIB Global and the government of North Macedonia took place in Skopje on World Water Day (22nd March) and at the same time as the first UN Water Conference in half a century.

“People in Skopje will finally receive a sewage treatment plant, which is of vital importance for the environment,” said Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Bojan Marichic. “This confirms that European integration is the best formula for the further development of the country, and that EU membership does not mean only fulfilling the criteria and complying with the legislation, but also concrete help for the country and its citizens.”

New plant to bring 90% of purified water

The EU grant will significantly accelerate the preparation and implementation of the project, leading to 90% of water in the country being purified. The project is part of the EU Economic and Investment Plan and Global Gateway strategy, as well as the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans.

“The path towards the European Union is a process of transformation, of improving lives and living standards,” said David Geer, EU ambassador to North Macedonia. “The plant will be able to safely treat and clean the wastewater generated by almost one third of the country’s population. It will contribute to the greener European future of this country.”

In its preparatory phase, the project has already benefitted from technical assistance grants from the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Western Balkans Investment Framework and the French government, a testament to the commitment of Team Europe to North Macedonia. The assistance aims to address capacity constraints among the local partners and to increase their ability to plan, operate and maintain investment projects.

Increased access to drinking water and sanitation services

The construction of the wastewater treatment plant in Skopje is backed by a €68 million EIB loan signed in 2019.

In the Western Balkans, the European Investment Bank has provided close to €750 million for water and sewage infrastructure to date, improving access to drinking water and sanitation services. The EU bank has helped build essential water distribution systems and wastewater facilities, as well as flood protection infrastructure.

“We are extremely proud to be able to deliver this kind of support for North Macedonia in times of prolonged crisis and profound challenges,” said Lilyana Pavlova, the European Investment Bank vice president responsible for the region.

This is the second EIB Global investment in this sector in less than five months, following a €50 million loan signed in November 2022 for the construction and rehabilitation of water supply, wastewater collection and treatment infrastructure, as well as emergency flood protection measures for 80 municipalities across North Macedonia.

As the EU climate bank, the European Investment Bank finances €3 billion in water infrastructure every year, with a focus on water security and climate change adaptation. Around 30% of the bank’s water projects are outside the European Union, often in some of the world’s poorest and most drought-stricken countries. In 2022, we have invested about €2.17 billion in the sector, which improved sanitation for 10.8 million people and enabled better access to safe drinking water for 25.4 million people.

Benefits to public health and increased climate resilience

Investments in new or upgraded wastewater treatment plants have substantial potential to fight climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions through better treatment of wastewater and the digestion of sludge. Wastewater collection and treatment is also a primary means of combatting diarrheal diseases.

Better wastewater collection and treatment infrastructure cuts greenhouse gas emission from untreated or poorly treated wastewater, as well as reducing energy consumption or introducing renewable energy. It also bolsters climate change adaptation by using fewer natural resources. This is significant for water-stressed countries, like North Macedonia.