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Albania: Officials Consider Declaring Polluted Lake Shkoder A National Park (Part 1)

Straddling the Montenegrin-Albanian border, Lake Shkoder is facing environmental threats from a variety of man-made sources. In this first of a two-part series on the Balkans' largest lake, RFE/RL reports on Albanian efforts to declare a national park on their part of the lake.

Shkoder, Albania; 20 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The distant echoes of explosions rumble through the city of Shkoder and nearby lakeside villages on many mornings as fishermen set off explosives in a bid to catch fish.

However, due to numerous casualties, many fisherman on the Albanian stretch of Lake Shkoder have switched to using electrical discharges instead of explosives.

Fishing is one of the few ways to eke out a living for the quarter of a million people who inhabit the city of Shkoder and 16 other towns and villages along the Albanian shore of Lake Shkoder, the biggest lake in the Balkans.

But the blasts and electric shocks are damaging the lake's ecology, as is over-hunting of the lake's once-rich bird life and continued dumping of raw sewage into the lake.

For the past two years, the Albanian government has been working on draft legislation to declare the 40 percent of the lake that is Albanian territory either a national park or a protected area.

Viktor Jubani is director of the Shkoder district environmental office. "The main danger to Lake Shkoder is the threat to its flora, fauna -- particularly fish, through fishing, mostly illegal uncontrolled extermination -- as well the hunting of birds, which tends to be out of control as well."

But Jubani, the top environmental official in the district, believes that there is still time to intervene and restore the lake's natural balance. "Fortunately," he said, "we don't have any industry along the lakeshore to cause water pollution. The only and most problematic thing we face is the discharge into Lake Shkoder of untreated sewage from the town since there isn't a purification system."

Every day, 25,000 cubic meters of sewage is discharged into the lake from Shkoder. Jubani says the degraded conditions of the lake are leading to the extinction of some species of fish, especially sturgeon. Before World War II, Shkoder produced and even exported caviar from sturgeon. Last year, Jubani says, only a single sturgeon was caught.

In a bid to coordinate an environmental project to salvage the lake's ecology, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) has supported both Albania and Montenegro with 350,000 euros through an initiative of the Environmental Rehabilitation Program in Europe, which has since won the support of the Stability Pact.

Diana Bejko is the general coordinator of the Regional Environmental Center in Shkoder. She said the authorities have been indifferent to the problems facing Lake Shkoder despite what she said is growing community interest in environmental issues. "The cleaning process of the lakeshore and of two big villages close to the lake -- Zogaj and Shiroka -- is under the administration of the municipality. What amazes me is that these two neighborhoods are not included in the clean-up plan that Shkoder municipality applies to other neighborhoods."

Eighteen local NGOs are focusing on identifying priorities. However, very few concrete actions have been take so far to clean up the shore, which in some places over the past decade has become overloaded with trash from the neighboring towns.

Bejko said the lake suffered the heaviest damage in 1997-98, when individuals used old, leaking tankers to smuggle oil and gasoline to Montenegro. "This pollution, I believe, is still present, because it takes years to wash away. The pollution -- by chemicals, oil, gasoline, etc. -- cannot be removed in the short term, although Lake Shkoder has this ability -- which very few lakes in the whole world enjoy -- to be entirely refreshed twice a year."

The lake, which averages just 6 meters in depth, is fed by Montenegro's Moraca River and to a lesser extent by Albania's Drini River, which only flows into the lake at times of high water. Otherwise, ever since the earthquake of 1905 the Drini has flowed directly into the Buna/Bojana River on the outskirts of Shkoder. The Buna takes the outflow from the lake, and subsequently forms the border between Montenegro and Albania as it meanders to the Adriatic Sea.

Hydrologists say the lake, though surrounded in places by wetlands of reeds, is not at risk of becoming a swamp. It preserves the balance of incoming waters and at dry times has an area of 370 square kilometers. However, it expands at times of heavy rainfall and snow melt in the winter and spring to a maximum area of about 530 square kilometers. In a bid to conserve this natural feature, Meshbush, a local NGO specializing in water-resource issues, has succeeded in blocking a government project to construct a new hydropower project at the lower end of the Drini River, forcing the government to suspend a $150 million investment.

Filip Guraziu is the chairman of Meshbush and explained the impact such a project would have had: "The [new] channel would have resulted in a decrease of 90 to 110 centimeters in the level of Lake Shkoder. This is surely something negative for the lake. The biology of the lake with its levels -- this tradition -- has influenced a rich biodiversity. A decrease in the level would reduce the biodiversity as well."

NGO representatives and biologists note that international assistance for environmental projects is growing. The World Bank has drafted a concept paper planning to invest about $5 million in the next two years in Shkoder's environmental resources.

In addition, the German University Rectors Conference is carrying out a chemical-monitoring survey of the lake, since many farms along the shore tend to use an excessive amount of pesticides.

The Stability Pact is involved in this cross-border cooperation through the Budapest-based Regional Environmental Center or REC. In addition to Albania and Montenegro, REC is also developing a project to protect the Neretva River estuary in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and another project in Bulgaria's Balkan range (Stara Planina). The primary objective of these projects is to foster relations and cooperation between neighboring countries that share common natural resources.

(Part 2, examining the Montenegrin side of the story, will be issued on 23 December.)