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Montenegro: A Sea Of Threats Inundate Lake Shkoder (Part 2)

  • Jolyon Naegele

Lake Shkoder -- the largest lake in the Balkans and surely one of the most beautiful -- has faced a variety of environmental threats over the past decade on both its Albanian and Montenegrin sides. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele recently visited the Montenegrin side of the lake and reports on efforts to tackle the lake's environmental problems.

Arbnes, Montenegro; 23 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- High up on a windswept mountain pass just 50 meters from the border with Albania, travelers have one of the most spectacular, panoramic views in the Balkans -- encompassing the Adriatic coast, the northern third of Albania, the eastern half of Montenegro, and all of Lake Shkoder, the largest lake in southeastern Europe.

About 40 percent of the lake lies in Albania; the rest is in Montenegro. It is ringed by mountains -- the coastal Rumija range to the west, separating the lake from the Adriatic Sea -- of which it was once an arm -- and the Great Highlands (Malesi e Madhe) and the Accursed Mountains (Beshket e Nemuna/Prokletija) beyond the flood plains and foothills to the east and north.

However, the wastewater of half of Montenegro, as well as of the 250,000 inhabitants of Albania's lakeside communities, eventually flows into the lake before being carried down to the Adriatic Sea by the meandering Bojana/Buna River.

Ana Misurovic is the director of the Podgorica-based Center for Ecological-Toxicological Research and a former environment minister: "The main pollution of Lake Shkoder in practice flows in from the largest river, the Moraca, which brings in the waste of urban sewage from Niksic, Danilovgrad, Podgorica, and surrounding communities."

Misurovic says other very serious sources of pollution include the fishing village of Virpazar, which dumps its sewage straight into the lake. There is also groundwater and runoff from the former capital, Cetinje, which flows via the Crnojevic River into Lake Shkoder.

But Misurovic notes that industrial pollution is also a serious problem: "Much more controversial and dangerous is the flow of groundwater which becomes polluted around the [Podgorica] aluminum works. It is full of heavy metals, alkali soda, and pyrilene, which seep into the lake, polluting it. Although the lake has a self-cleaning system with the ability to purify itself, the pollution is extraordinarily high."

Misurovic says the lake's water quality has been regularly monitored over the past 20 years at nine sites on the Montenegrin side: "For most of the year, the quality of Lake Shkoder's water -- out in the middle, not along the shore -- is between 1 and 2, class A1 according to EU directives. So it serves for raising fish and can be drunk after purification. That's not the case in closed-off parts [areas with a restricted flow of water], such as around Virpazar, or along the Crnojevic, or where the Moraca River flows into the lake. There the quality is usually class A2 -- relatively good quality, although not first-rate quality as elsewhere in the lake."

Misurovic says the Albanian authorities have so far been unable to provide measurements of their own. But she insists that bacteriological levels in the vicinity of Shkoder due to the dumping of untreated wastewater is extraordinarily high. Since 2001, universities in Montenegro, Albania, Germany, and Austria have been undertaking a joint project for the integral monitoring of Lake Shkoder for basic parameters of water quality.

The Montenegrin portion of the lake and its surroundings have comprised a 400-square-kilometer state park since 1983 and are noted for their extraordinary bird and fish life and lush vegetation. Some 264 species of birds -- including the rare Dalmatian pelican and various storks, ibises, and eagles -- and mammals including wild boar, wolves, and foxes -- inhabit the lake area. There are also some 48 types of fish, including carp, bleak, and goldfish, as well as saltwater fish such as eels, chub, mullet, and alewife that make their way from the Adriatic to the lake via the Bojana/Buna River.

However, there appears to be some confusion over what the role of a national park should be. The park's website ( notes "great numbers of certain breeds are permitted by law to be shot." The hunting season lasts a generous seven months (15 August-15 March) but costs a hefty 100 euros a day for foreigners who are allowed to hunt any day of the week. In contrast, domestic hunters (Yugoslav citizens) are restricted to hunting only on Sundays and holidays in season.

National Park director Miso Andjelic concedes hunting in the park is inadequately controlled: "The hunting industry is not staffed [with guides and wardens] as much as needed.... Hunters from Italy can't get over the fact that we have everything. They, the Italians, are regular guests. They hunt on the lake nonstop. It's not hard for them to come here and spend 10, 15, or 20 days. Some of these people have been coming for 30 years. But [the park] is inadequately protected and [the rules] are inadequately obeyed."

Andjelic says the park does not cooperate with Albania in wildlife protection: "No, no, there is no cooperation of any sort. I'm telling you -- when you don't have any money, you don't have anything. The state doesn't allocate what it should. It doesn't give anything. This is Sisyphus work -- a couple of people, nature lovers, who are trying to get something done. But [what can they do] when there's no money and the government doesn't allocate any money?"

Darko Saveljic runs the Podgorica-based Center for the Protection and Research of Birds, a nongovernmental organization. He notes that since 1995, Lake Shkoder has been on the Ramsar list of Wetlands of International Importance. (The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands was signed in Ramsar, Iran in 1971 as an intergovernmental treaty on the proper use of wetlands and their resources.)

"Lake Shkoder is known in Europe as a 'birds' airport'. The term is no accident, since as we noted that in the year 2000, 250,000 birds wintered at the lake. In comparison, a total of 50,000 birds are estimated to reside in all of Slovenia. This gives you a basic picture about the richness of Lake Shkoder's bird life. More than 90 percent of the total number of birds on Lake Shkoder are migratory. Unfortunately, Montenegrins are not aware of these riches," Saveljic says.

Saveljic says Montenegrin authorities are failing to live up to international conventions and treaties to protect the lake: "By having declared Lake Shkoder a national park, the [Montenegrin] state has obligated itself to the fact that this area of great natural rarities will be protected and utilized solely for scientific, educational and recreational purposes. However, it is no accident that here we are, facing organized industrial fishing -- that means using nets, and organized hunting, including shooting birds."

Saveljic says that is in contravention of the Ramsar Convention, which obliges signatory countries not to exploit unrenewable resources in protected wetlands. Nevertheless, he notes that the Montenegrin agriculture minister nearly two years ago announced a tender for the exploitation of high-quality peat from around Lake Shkoder: "As an ornithologist, I am absolutely dissatisfied with how Lake Shkoder's status is being used and dealt with since this is very irresponsible. But I have to say that in the face of the great pressure that the lake's bird life is under, it hasn't lost its value."

In addition to its other woes, Lake Shkoder in recent years has served as a key transit point for Montenegrin and Albanian smugglers.

Food, fuel, arms, and refugees moved with relative ease across the lake throughout much of the 1990s. After the collapse of communist rule, the Albanians had no functioning patrol boat on the lake while the Yugoslav armed forces had just one boat. Smugglers waited for the boat to enter a port or anchor behind an island and then moved quickly.

Much of that activity has ceased as a result of EU pressure, the end of hostilities, and international sanctions, as well as crackdowns by Albanian and Montenegrin authorities. But according to NGO organized crime analyst Nebojsa Medojevic in Podgorica, illicit trade continues at the Sukobin-Muriqani border crossing on the traditionally impoverished western side of the lake. Medojevic says this is the last functioning smuggling channel into Montenegro. Judging by the large quantity of late-model Mercedes Benzes and BMWs parked along the main street in the nearby ethnic Albanian village of Ostros, he may well be right.