Plitvice Lakes, Croatia & Bihać, Bosnia and Herzegovina  


In addition to the popular tourist destinations on the Adriatic coast, another touristic highlight is the Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia’s oldest national park and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The complex hydrological systems give rise to 16 lakes separated by waterfalls and tufa barriers, which are linked to large underground karst environments (Herceg Romanić et al. 2016, Babinka 2007). Although the number of visitors has dramatically increased, the tourists do not merely bring economic strength to the region. The construction boom of tourist accommodation unfolded without sewage systems and wastewater treatment in place. As a consequence, the lake system gained the locally-dubbed ‘17th lake’ of Plitvice: illegal septic tanks that were created close to the main lakes. 

A mere 20 km southeast of the Plitvice Lake National Park lies the city of Bihać in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Plitvice Lakes and Bihać are not only connected by the main roads and border crossing but also by subterranean waterways. The groundwater of the Plitvice Lakes flows through connected aquifers from recharge areas in Croatia to Bosnia-Herzegovina and re-emerges in springs used for drinking water supply (Babinka 2007) – which is also the case for Bihać. To this end, the groundwater pollution caused by illegal septic tanks in the National Park directly links to worsening drinking water quality in Bihać. On the one side, the EU’s ‘transformative power’ in changing Bosnia-Herzegovina’s legislative regulatory frameworks in the environmental sector is indisputable (Börzel/Fagan 2015b), as Bosnia-Herzegovina aspires to EU accession, engaging in Europeanisation processes prior to actual harmonisation; while Croatia, in theory, follows all EU legislation since completing EU accession in 2017. However, this does not necessarily correspond to national prioritisation of (sustainable) environmental and land use governance as resource management is marked by administrative opacity, mismatches in regulatory authorities and institutional lock-in (Jansen 2015). While some attempts have been made to resolve this issue of pollution of transboundary groundwater bodies, possible solutions for this highly politicised issue of transboundary water management (Uitto/Duda 2002) mostly remain on paper, such as the recent proposition of establishing a ‘Cross-Border Karstic Aquifer Sanitary Protection Zone’ under the auspices of the EU and international development organisations (World Bank).

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia. (Photo: Sofia Cerqueira –
Source of the Buna River in Bosnia and Hercegovina. (Photo:


Overall, with this  case study we aim to address transboundary groundwater management, interactions between EU and non-EU water policies, diffuse and point groundwater pollution by illegal septic tanks and military/industrial waste and the concomitant politicization of groundwater. 



  • Contribute insights into the telecoupling framework by considering tourism and  policy implementation (information) as certain types of flows

Institutions (Cultural Anthropology/European Ethnology)

  • Ethnographic approach to investigate how local forms of groundwater governance and groundwater use practices come into the purview of national regulatory frameworks and EU water policies that safeguard water quality and sustainable water extraction
  • Study how social and cultural negotiations of the meaning and perception of groundwater inform the nuanced ways in which EU water policies and local water use practices relate to each other:
    • Negotiation (1): The ‘nature’ of groundwater, namely whether and by whom water is understood as an inherited property, a common good, a marketable commodity and as an object of policies and management.
    • Negotiation (2): The statutory mechanisms that order and structure practices of groundwater use and vice versa, e.g. substantive rights to specific goods, such as the right to clean water, procedural rights, such as the right to participation in democratic decision-making processes of groundwater policy, concession rights, and customary law.