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View across Lake Ohrid with small boats. Photo: Jaime Pérez via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
View across Lake Ohrid with small boats. Photo: Jaime Pérez via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
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Macedonia: EBRD's planned destruction of Lake Ohrid Biosphere Reserve

Elena Nikolovska & Daniel Scarry

27th October 2015

UNESCO's Lake Ohrid-Prespa Biosphere Reserve at Mount Galicica, Macedonia, is at risk from a raft of aggressive developments, write Elena Nikolovska & Daniel Scarry: tourism complexes, a new expressway and ski resort all threaten its tranquility and stunning diversity of wildlife, backed by loans from the EU's taxpayer-funded Bank, the EBRD.

The EBRD seems to hold a vendetta against the Balkan lynx: as if dam projects in one of its main breeding grounds were not enough, the road project at Mount Galicica will now fragment habitat for its prey species.

Expert economists and people on the street would likely agree on the need for green investments in a 21st century society.

But does simply paying lip-service to the 'need for sustainable tourism' automatically signal care for the wellbeing of this planet or has green become the new black?

In Macedonia's wilderness Ohrid-Prespa region, a new ten-year urbanization plan backed by the government and financed in part by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) certainly seems to confuse its colors.

Macedonia wants money, and it wants money fast. Correctly observing that pristine environments are perhaps its greatest asset, it incorrectly seeks to monetize them whatever way it can. Short-term cash trumps long-term sustainability.

And, if a flourishing ancient lake ecosystem of unique ecological and scientific significance or a UNESCO Transboundary Biosphere Reserve happen to get in the way, it is a price developers are all too willing to pay (occasionally with financial support from the EBRD).

Since peaceful succession from Yugoslavia in 1991, Macedonia has struggled for economic viability in its transition from socialism to the free market. Unemployment has hovered around 30% for the past twenty years, and single-earner families are common.

Focus has now shifted to the tourism industry to kick-start the money flow, and the country's majestic southwest border region has naturally caught the eye.

Aquatic cradles of life amid a mountain wilderness

Here, Lake Ohrid, one of the world's oldest inland waters and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, combines with her sister, Lake Prespa, to supply a microclimate for Mount Galicica, which lies between them. The two lakes and intervening mountain reinforce each other to maintain a habitat as delicate as it is dramatic, as beguiling as it is divine.

At the latest count, 1200 native species have been observed in Lake Ohrid's depths alone. Meanwhile Mount Galicica hosts large predators such as brown bear, wolves, and jackal; over 1500 species of butterflies and moths; multifold reptiles, birds and herbivorous mammals; and upwards of 1000 local flora kinds, some of which exist nowhere else on the planet.

Little wonder then that UNESCO inscribed the region stretching over the border into Albania as the Ohrid-Prespa Transboundary Biosphere Reserve in 2014, inaugurated with the following press release:

"The entire area of the TBR is rich in biodiversity with worldwide rare and endangered species. Due to the historical genesis of the two lakes, there are numerous endemic species which are unique and are occurring only in the aquatic and the surrounding terrestrial ecosystems."

Opening the eyes of the world to such a many-varied ecostructure as part of a sustainable, ecology-first tourism program might seem like a reasonable measure. Yet nature only figures in regional proposals as an inconvenience, afterthought, or source for exploitation.

In fact, the new tourism-focused urbanization plan threatens the integrity of the entire Ohrid-Prespa environment.

An aggressive assault on world natural heritage

Amendments to the Management Plan for Galicica National Park and Amendments to the Spatial Plan for the Municipality of Ohrid and Surrounding Lakeshore Villages, two official documents that outline the imminent future direction of regional development, present a vision of almost willful ecological illiteracy.

Unless halted, they will be remembered as the blueprint for a catastrophe. This is a beginner's guide to destruction:

  • Studenchishte Marsh, the last of Lake Ohrid's wetlands and the natural filter for its notable water quality, will be cemented in favor of upscale tourism accommodation.
  • National park lands will be downgraded from a Zone of Active Management to a Zone of Sustainable Use to allow a ski-resort to cut through the heart of once-protected Mount Galicica, despite its paucity of natural snow.
  • A 26km A3 expressway, which the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has salami-sliced and is considering finance for 12.5km, will grind through ecologically sensitive mountainside lands including 84 hectares of Macedonian oak forest, an Annex 1 habitat under the EU Habitats Directive.
  • Associated with the ski-resort, 319 hectares of Annex 1 Alpine and subalpine calcareous grasslands; 106 hectares of Annex 1 common juniper scrub; 87 hectares of Annex 1 beech woods; and over 40 hectares of other listed plant communities will be devastated.
  • Reed-belt breeding grounds for species such as the locally iconic Ohrid carp and mute swan will be torn out.
  • Lakeshore tourism developments at the village of Ljubanishta will cripple a vital underwater spring system and concrete areas physically within the lake.
  • Natural, pebbled beach habitats will be sunk beneath imported sand to match Mediterranean seaside stereotypes.
  • Non-native tree species, such as palms, will be introduced to Lake Ohrid's coast.
  • On the shores of Lake Prespa, a second marsh, at heavily protected Stenje, will be destabilized.


Dr. Trajce Talevski of the local Hydrobiological Institute described wetlands as a natural habitat of rare importance: "Studenchishte Marsh is a unique ecosystem with 50 plant species, of which at least 10 are rare and important for the survival of the lake.

"Four amphibian species, over 70 insect species, 50 unique and important migratory bird species and carp make up a large, thriving ecosystem inside the marsh. Destroying it would mean ruining this already fragile ecosystem and threatening the survival of Lake Ohrid."

It is worth noting that the death of Studenchishte Marsh is just one of the projects listed above.

Theaters of evolution as the curtain comes down

From ski-resorts to expressways, the proposals would be questionable in any location, but in the Ohrid-Prespa region they are particularly foolish. Of the 117,000,000 lakes on Earth, only between 8 and 20 have been confirmed as ancient. While most inland waters disappear through sedimentation after a maximum of 100,000 years, the ancients have survived continuously since well before the last period of glaciation.

Their longevity can stretch to millions of years, and evolution has had a far greater timespan to innovate species within their isolated environments. The result is individualized ecosystems akin to aquatic Galapagoses. Lake Ohrid is one of these elite evolutionary superstructures and, even before the eco-decline kitbag mentioned above had been formalized, researchers were issuing stark warnings of its vulnerability.

Dr. Bernd Wagner of the University of Cologne is one such concerned scientist. "Lake Ohrid is one of the most diverse lakes in the world", he said. "Destroying the shorelines and the reed belts due to construction work, increased infrastructure, and a rise the amount of tourism will lead to increased nutrient input to the lake, which may, in turn, cause destruction to large parts of the habitats of Lake Ohrid's unique fauna."

The Galapagos theme extends to Galicica National Park too. Its softened climate cools harsh summers, and cozies bitter winters. Weather anomalies combine with local geology to create unique, localized and varied habitats that caress unusual creatures and plants through planetary extremes.

Sixteen forest communities grow 1900m up its slopes. Water runs through the mountain in underground karstic channels. Balkan chamois skip across its slopes, and the critically endangered Balkan lynx may possibly pass through from time to time.

As with Lake Ohrid, Mount Galicica's ecological role simply cannot be performed by other locations because it is singularly different to them. Tragically, this knowledge is presently not enough to prevent its degradation.

Environmentally sound and sustainable development - EBRD-style

Meanwhile, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) must be licking its lips. It is offering a €50mn loan for the aforementioned expressway, despite multiple criticisms from ecologists.

Some, such as local mammal expert, Gjorge Ivanov, argue that the road will block the access of mountain species to lake water in dry summer months; cut off their vertical migration; obstruct animal access points to higher forest at Crno Brdo (Black Mountain); increase the risk of human-induced fires on the mountainside; and accelerate eutrophication at Lake Ohrid through deforestation and elevated nutrient run-off.

The EBRD, however, has its ears closed and not the first time: Just three years ago, two hydroelectric power plants, Boskov Most and Lukovo Pole, were to be constructed on the River Radika in the heart of Macedonia's beautiful Mavrovo National Park. The 'green' financier for the 33m high Boskov Most dam is the EBRD.

The hydroelectric power plant at Boskov Most would have a highly negative impact on the sole confirmed core breeding area for the Balkan Lynx, a critically endangered species that numbers as few as around 100 individuals. Its implementation could push the precarious large cat even closer to extinction.

Indeed, the EBRD almost seems to hold a vendetta against the species: as if dam projects in one of its main breeding grounds at Mavrovo were not enough, the road project at Mount Galicica will now fragment habitat for its prey species such as roe deer, chamois, and hare; reduce its range; and isolate its populations, perhaps leading to inbreeding.

There are concerns about a conflict of interest too. While the EBRD is acting as project manager for its part of the road, it has also provided technical assistance for the environmental impact assessment by engaging a consultant, Citrus Partners LLP. Incredibly, this concluded that there would be no high impact from the A3 expressway.

Those who care

All of this is why over 200 local and international experts, including some of the most learned figures on the subject of ancient lakes, have put their names on an open declaration demanding a halt to the urbanization plans.

It is also why organizations such as the International Society of Limnology, Euronatur, and several Macedonian citizens' associations from bike clubs to mountaineers have given voice to a movement for regional protection. 11,000 members of the general public from across the world have signed a separate petition against the proposed developments at Lake Ohrid and Mount Galicica as well.

Together, these groups and individuals recognize that, if regional plans proceed,

  • wetlands development will gradually decline Lake Ohrid's water-quality and destabilize its ecosystem;
  • hypersensitive subaquatic spring systems will lose their unique life-giving force;
  • existing lake-based sewerage concerns will spike;
  • the ski-resort will irrevocably damage a mountain habitat of continental significance;
  • the EBRD-financed road will imperil numerous species from endemic snails to large mammal predators;
  • and forests will be hacked down, never to return.


They also recognize that all the colors of nature will be sacrificed for concrete with national parks illegally re-zoned to accommodate infrastructure and the Ohrid region's image-building UNESCO status jeopardized along the way.

For Macedonia, mountain green and Ohrid blue are indeed becoming the new black.

 


 

Elena Nikolovska & Daniel Scarry are activists for Ohrid SOS, a Macedonian citizens' initiative devoted to the protection of the Ohrid-Prespa region and the immense diversity of life it contains. Elena also writes an eye-opening blog on Macedonian ecological issues.

Elena Nikolovska (mrsnikolovska@gmail.com +389 7020 5431)and Daniel Scarry (dscar.ohridsos@gmail.com +886 975 781 024)

Action: Express your displeasure with the EBRD expressway by writing an open letter to bank president Suma Chakrabarti. Don't let the bank fob you off with offsetting measures, which are unproven and will not prevent many of the issues discussed above. Demand non-approval for the road loan. A quick email to UNESCO at wh-info@unesco.org to request more meaningful protective measures would be appreciated too. Let Ohrid SOS know how you get on.

Otherwise, please sign and share the petition, speak out on Ohrid-Prespa destruction and ecotouristically visit this beautiful region one day. Those wishing to involve more deeply can email dscar.ohridsos@gmail.com. We are particularly interested to discuss and potentially work with scientific researchers.

Twitter: #SaveLakeOhrid

 

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