Several years of efforts to stop the pollution have not succeeded in saving the Fierza lake, whose waters have marked a decline in quality. Established 45 years ago, the authorities feel powerless to prevent the avalanche of waste, which comes from Kosovo, North Macedonia and three municipalities through which it passes in Albania, while the Ministry of Environment does not see the pollution of Fierza as a problem.
Authors: Adelina Ahmeti, Emiriola Velia and Merxhan Daci
In July 2014, two environmental experts in Kukës noticed a massive development of algae in Lake Fierza. The unusual development first appeared in the area of the Luma bridge and then spread further to the area of the lake around Kukës. The layer of 5-7 cm thick algae was spread over a space of 25 km2, in front of Kukës and on both side branches, in Drini i Bardhë, up to Kosovo and Drin Zi.
Laboratory analyzes confirmed that the quality of Fierza’s waters had been significantly compromised. Blooms of cyanobacteria, a family of algae, some of which produce toxins dangerous to other living things that live in or consume the water, had been observed for the first time.
“It was clearly noticed that it was a mass bloom of the Cyanobacterium Aphanizomenon Flos-aquae”, – explains Aleko Miho, a biologist at the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of Tirana, who led the laboratory examinations of this “phenomenon”. According to him, fortunately, there were no reports of mass die-offs of the underwater habitat at the time, although fishermen in the area had stated that they had seen shoals of dead fish the year before.
“Sometimes, certain types of algae are poisonous, with even more serious consequences for the living underwater world and for human health as the top consumer in the food chain of these ecosystems,” – explains Miho, who says that in the country there are few studies in this direction.
Experts think that this is an alert, which should worry many institutions.
“The bloom of cyanobacteria, observed in Lake Fierza, is to date the first case for fresh, calm waters. This phenomenon should serve as an initial signal for recognition and awareness, to unite efforts to maintain the quality and condition of our waters”, – says the study of this case.
Sewage, urban waste, heavy industrial waste and fertilizers dumped on land in the three countries where the rivers meander all end up untreated in the water.
The report of the National Environment Agency for 2021 admits that the quality of the waters of the Drin basin has been declining for 3 years. If in 2018 the waters of the Drin-Bune basin were in III class, moderate condition, starting from 2019 they would be classified in IV class, because of poor condition.
As a result of the alarming pollution, in 2014 the Albanian and Kosovo governments created a task force, but efforts to install protective nets have failed. Also, the promises to give this area a special status, which would protect it from pollution and turn it into a function of the country’s development, have also remained unpaved.
Abdulla Diku, an environmental expert in Tirana, says that as a result the lake and its polluted waters become a haven for environmental problems, thus turning into a place of pollution.
“And this pollution goes down towards Koman, Vau i Dejës, crosses the Buna and flows into the sea”, – says Abdulla Diku, who adds that a light fishing industry circulates along this system, with which we, the visitors, the children and communities are fed.
“If you go to Kukës, they proudly offer you fish from the lake of Fierza, while the remains of the landfill of Kukës are right on the edge of the lake. So we eat dirty food”, – says Abdulla Diku, environmental expert, well known in Tirana.
Who pollutes Fierza?
The torrential rains of this January once again “covered” Fierza and its shores with various wastes, mostly plastic. The main polluter is Drini i Bardhë, which originates from Kosovo and crosses an area with a population of about 400 thousand inhabitants. Several important residential centers are built on its banks, which throw urban waste and untreated sewage into the river. Even the Drin i Zi, which originates from Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, as well as the branches of the rivers within the Albanian territory, together with the waters, bring mountains of garbage with them.
As a result, the water quality of the country’s largest catchment, Fierza, is seriously threatened.
Adem Lushaj, activist for environmental protection, is a resident of the municipality of Deçan, through which the Drini i Bardhë flows. He shows that this river, which also collects many others around it, is mainly polluted by the discharge of sewage, such as the lack of purification plants.
“The most alarming case is the emptying of sewage in Deçan and some villages. The main sewerage flows right here, in Lumbardhi, Deçan. Somewhere, 10 meters below the sewage spillway, is the canal, where water is taken for irrigating the lands”, – Lushaj confesses, showing the photos that show the carnage on this river.
Citizens living in the area of Deçan, which also affects Lumbardhi, which bears the same name, have constantly protested against water pollution. Lushaj says that they have initiated reports to the justice bodies, due to the pollution and degradation of the waters.
“The institutional reactions to the reactions of the citizens have been regrettable”, – says disappointed Lushaj.
“Water and air pollution has no limits. The pollution of the Drin i bardhë directly affects Albania as well. So, the influences are interstate and must be fought by everyone”, – concludes the activist Lushaj.
The biggest pollution of Fierza is attributed to the waters coming from Kosovo. Unequipped with treatment plants, Peja, Deçani and Prizren pour urban and industrial waste directly into the rivers and then end up in the Drin. Added to these are the use of pesticides and fertilizers in agriculture, as well as toxic waste from heavy industry.
Agron Shala, leader of the Hydrometeorological Institute of Kosovo, explains to Investigative Network Albania that 10 rivers flow into the Drin i Bardhë that are polluted. According to him, the most polluted rivers in Kosovo are Prishtevka, which is located in the village of Bresje, Graqanka, in the village of Vragoli, Sitnica river, Rimniku river and Klina river.
“The most polluted rivers, which flow into Drin i Bardhë, are the Klina river (passes through the municipality of Skënderaj and Klina) and the Rimnik river (passes only the municipality of Rahovec)”, – says Shala.
Considered the black rivers of Kosovo, their pollution also takes place in the last report, published last year by the Environmental Protection Agency.
More specifically, Drini i Bardhë, Istogu, Klina river, Lumbardhi of Peja, Mirusha river, Lumbardhi of Deçan, Erenik river, Rimnik river, Toplluha river, Lumbardhi of Prizren are some of the rivers that flow along the territory of Kosovo and that they have it in the Mediterranean Sea and the Adriatic Sea.
“Up to the point of confluence with the Istog river, the water is mostly of good quality. Drastic changes began in the Zllakuqan-Ruhot and Zllakuqan-Klinë regions. At the meeting point of the Drin i bardhë and the Klina River, its condition worsens. So, the water of the Drin i Bardhë basin is polluted by the discharges of the sub-basins, which have previously been subjected to human influences”, – says the 2020 report of the Environmental Protection Agency in Kosovo on water quality.
However, the head of Kosovo’s Hydrometeorology says that the waters that cross the border in Albania are slightly polluted, compared to the amount of water that this river has.
Shala lists a number of factors that pollute surface water and, consequently, underground water as well.
“Pollution mainly comes from all the water discharges they use, starting from each economic operator: pumping water from mines, restaurants, producers of dairy products, meat, plastic, concrete; gravel washing, agriculture, etc.”, – explains the head of the Hydrometeorological Institute of Kosovo.
“Today is late, what about tomorrow?”, – Shala continues in his statement to INA MEDIA.
The Hydrometeorological Institute of Kosovo has been monitoring the quality of river waters for a long time and means that if the values of the measured parameters are high, the waters are polluted.
Earlier, a World Bank report on the security of Kosovo’s waters raised concerns about the treatment of polluted waters in the sister state of Albania.
In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency of Kosovo carried out the project for the compilation of the Cadastre of Water Pollutants of Kosovo. This project presented disturbing data, where teams of experts had identified over 368 water pollutants.
“All the river basins of Kosovo are very polluted”, – says the report.
Virtyt Gacaferri, manager of Balkan Natural Adventure, a local tourism company, says that he has found that tourists throw their waste into the water, as they think that the water sends them somewhere else.
“River pollution is dangerous for human health and the pocket. If the river water is polluted and becomes undrinkable, we will all end up drinking water from the bottle”, – says Gacaferri.
Gacaferri mentions one of the main comments they receive from their customers.
“…about the amount of garbage in nature, especially in Lake Koman. There, at Lake Koman, the majority of Kosovo garbage getts packed together, which they throw into the Drin and the rivers that flow into it,” – he continues.
Fatmir Bajraliu, secretary of the Kosovo Fishermen’s Federation, says that they do not function as an organization for the development of sports activities and their suggestions or complaints, as well as their denunciations, are not taken into account.
“It has very often happened that fishermen and fisheries guards in the field have come across irregularities, they have notified the inspection group, and the response from them has been: “Thank you for the information, they will take measures”, – answers Bajraliu.
Institutions, without a strategy
The pollution of the watershed is also accepted by the responsible institutions themselves. A study by the Albanian Center for Economic Studies (ACER), regarding the quality of water in the district of Kukës, published in 2021 on the official website of the Municipality of Kukës, proves that the biggest problem in this district is the pollution of the waters of the basin of Fierza lake. But, paradoxically, in this district “there is no institution to monitor water quality”.
“The sources of pollution of these waters are: inert materials (mainly plastic materials, such as bottles, cans, syringes, etc.), which accumulate from the flows of the Drini i Bardhë, Drini i Zi and Luma rivers. Since these rivers pass through a wide territory even outside the state borders, such as Kosovo and Macedonia, and urban waste is deposited on the banks of these rivers, there is massive pollution with these materials”, – is stated in the study published on the official website of the Municipality of Kukës.
The Albanian Electric Corporation, KESH, which is the owner of this basin, accepts the pollution of Fierza and explains to Investigative Network Albania that it has included this problem in the development strategy and envisages intervention projects.
“In addition to the problem of waste, carried for years from the territories of the municipalities to the lake basin of Fierza, one of the main sources of their arrival in the lake is the waste that comes from Kosovo through the discharge of the Drini i Bardhë and Drini i Zi rivers. Plastic waste remains one of the biggest problems in the lake”, – says KESH in an official response to Investigative Network Albania.
KESH admits that the sporadic actions it has carried out together with environmental associations or activists “cannot provide a final solution to this problem, as the waste ends up in lakes, whenever there is water flow as a result of rainfall”.
Although it promises that cleaning the lake from waste will be a priority, KESH clarifies that throughout 2022, the cleaning of waste in the three hydropower lakes under its administration was prevented by the declaration of a state of energy emergency, which is still in force .
“The project is already completed and will be a priority, as soon as KESH has the financial opportunity to procure this service”, – KESH explains.
Paradoxically, the Ministry of Tourism and Environment says that there is no such problem.
“Regarding the situation in Fierza lake (Drin river), we inform you that no complaint has been delegated to the ARM, Shkodër, Lezhë, Kukës by the National Environment Agency or by any other public institution regarding this matter”, – said the ministry in its response, which listed several cleaning actions as a success.
But, apparently, the Ministry of Environment has not seen the report of the National Environment Agency, which confirmed that the waters of the Drin basin have been assessed as being of poor quality.
“The waters of the Drini basin are classified in Class IV – Poor condition, as the station at the Drini point, Lezhë, before being discharged into the sea, has been assessed with pollution in the assessment of physico-chemical parameters above the permitted rates, due to the impact of urban discharges of the city, problematic, which is observed near urban areas”, – said the National Environment Agency in the official response to INA MEDIA.
Professor Aleko Miho is also skeptical about the reports presented by the National Environment Agency, since according to him they do not talk about periodic measurements.
“A very cursory assessment is made regarding the quality of the waters and this way does not show any professionalism and security in the quality of the data. This makes these reports of little use regarding the concrete recognition of water quality”, – says Professor Miho.
“The National Environmental Monitoring Plan, which is generated every year by KTA, is very ambitious, but it is impossible to cover it from two modest laboratories, housed near KTA, and from the corresponding staff, which is equally modest”, – he says further and suggests that the government should support the creation of an independent institution for environmental monitoring.
Despite all the deadlock between the institutions, it seems that the protection of the waters of Fierza has remained in the hands of the activists.
Arben Kola, an individual guide for those looking for difficult journeys, was one of the organizers of the “Clean up Fierza” action in April 2021. The volunteers who joined the initiative also arrived from Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia.
“Over 100 volunteers cleaned one of the shores of the lake in Kukës and we collected about 700 bags”, – Arben Kola tells about the organized action.
“We aimed to raise awareness, but this is not a solution”, – he says, aware of the great problem of pollution.
According to Rifat Demaliajt from the Center for Youth Progress, despite the fact that there is an increase in awareness, stopping the pollution of the lake seems to be a difficult challenge.
“The local institutions, which are responsible for this situation, must take concrete steps to influence the removal of the waste that accumulates along the coasts and on the surface of the water. We, as a civil society, help in awareness but not in solutions. The solution must come from the local institutions, both in Kukës and Kosovo”, – Demaliaj told INA MEDIA.
The impact on the economy
Fishermen are the ones who have been suffering the consequences of the water pollution of this lake for years. If before the 90s this basin produced about 5 thousand tons of fish, in recent years the fish that fall into fishermen’s nets have become very rare, being reduced to a minimum figure of 25 tons per year.
Part of the blame for the disappearance of fish they place on pollution.
“The lake has been polluted for years. The waste, when we hunt, spoils our nets and makes it difficult for us to fish. When we go out to the lake by boat, we clean it ourselves, we’re already used to it,” – Albert Martini, one of the fishermen who lives his daily life in different places on the shores of the lake, told INA MEDIA.
Fatmir Bajraliu, secretary of the Kosovo Fishermen’s Federation, often comes to fish in the waters of Fierza, but he confesses that there are times when fishing is impossible due to pollution.
“We, the fishermen of Kosovo, fish very often in the lake of Kukës, and there have been cases that in large parts of the surface we have not been able to throw the hook due to plastic waste, which Drini i Bardhë brings”, – Bajraliu confesses.
The environmental expert, Abdulla Diku, raises the alarm that this pollution risks destroying the trout, one of the most valuable types of fish in this area.
“Trout, for example, cannot live in polluted waters, they will disappear or run away from there. As well as other types of fish”, – explains the expert, Abdulla Diku.
The Department of Agriculture in Kukës says that it has organized several actions with other local institutions, civil society to raise awareness of voluntary cleaning actions. On the other hand, the Municipality of Kukes informs that it has signed a cooperation agreement with the Municipality of Lübeck in Germany, to procure cleaning equipment.
Placing barriers in the Drini i Bardhë river is the first step towards a partial solution to the problem, but this project worth about 400 thousand euros, called BioDrini, and led by the municipality of Rahovec, leaves out the Drini i Zi.
Abdulla Domi, the head of the Kukës region, sees with concern the situation in the Luma River, which stretches along the Korab-Koritnik National Nature Park.
“It is very precipitous and can affect the destruction of barriers, even though during the implementation of the project it is foreseen to intervene in the adjustment of the bed of the Luma river”, – explains Domi. The cross-border project, which is supported by the European Union, comes as a collaboration between the Municipality of Kukes and the municipality of Rahovec. The surface of this lake in the territory of Albania is 64 km2, while the total surface, if we also count the part of the lake in Kosovo, is 72.5 km2.
The Drin river basin is a cross-border basin, which is shared with Greece, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro.
There is also a memorandum of understanding, as well as a Strategic Action Plan, approved by the 5 states that share this river basin, in the framework of a long-term cooperation with the support of the Drin Corda project.
The pollution of the rivers in Kosovo, which comes from the dumping of waste, sewage, and the most dangerous one, which Fatmir Bajraliu considers, is the chemical pollution, which is done by the manufacturing businesses, which also destroys the aquatic fauna, which is very important.
The Criminal Code of Kosovo also contains penalties for environmental pollution. Article 338 provides for pollution, degradation and destruction of the environment.
In several responses to the INA MEDIA, the Kosovo Police has indicated that only during the year 2022, 81 files were registered against persons, citizens related to pollution, degradation and destruction of the environment.
Of the seven prosecutor’s offices in Kosovo, which investigate and deal with crimes, in some of them there are 14 open cases involving degradation, destruction and pollution of the environment.
The Judicial Council of Kosovo says that 36 cases were received in 2017 related to environmental degradation. A total of 40 cases have been completed, while in the same year 71 cases have not been resolved.
The year 2018 found the courts with 71 cases remaining from the previous year. 42 cases were accepted as new cases, 21 ended with fines, 15 cases ended with bail. 44 cases have been closed, while 69 have been carried over to 2019. In 2019, 24 people for environmental degradation were fined, 8 were sentenced to probation.
The solution, expensive
For experts, the solution is not difficult, but it is expensive. It should start from waste separation to the construction of landfills.
“We need real landfills, not places where waste is thrown and then pushed towards lakes or water sources either by the wind or by vehicles”, – suggests Abdulla Diku.
He then suggests that nets should be placed in some waterways to catch plastic waste floating on the water, and for lakes there should be a cleaning tool (small boat) that circulates and collects floating waste.
“And lastly, the collection of packaging, bottles, bags, etc., by residents and businesses should be financially stimulated. So, if someone returns a bottle, packaging or plastic bag, they should be paid somehow for it”, – explains the environmental expert.
Environmentalist Lavdosh Ferruni says that the whole issue lies in the separation of waste at the source.
“This is what will happen with pollution, especially plastic pollution, for many more years in the lakes of the Drin cascade, as long as the governments of Kosovo and Albania do not implement the separation of urban waste at the source”, – comments Ferruni.
“Penalties for polluters, litter management/providing places where litter is sent, and education at the end. I consider that without all three elements the situation cannot be improved”, – suggests Virtut Gacaferri.
Aware that the environmental management process is a costly process, expert Abdulla Diku also has a cost for these interventions.
“Just one cleaning boat for the lakes costs, for example, about 50 thousand euros. Landfills and other waste management infrastructure also cost a lot. Maybe 3-5 million euros are needed for the Kukës region. If the tenders do not turn into goals in themselves, such investments are usually sustainable, otherwise we will only enjoy the monetary values of the tenders”, – he concludes.
Ky shkrim është pjesë e projektit që mbështetet financiarisht nga Zyra e Mardhënieve me Publikun e Ambasadës së SH.B.A. në Tiranë. Opinionet, gjetjet, konkluzionet dhe rekomandimet e shprehura janë te autor-it/ve dhe nuk përfaqesojnë domosdoshmërisht ato të Departamentit të Shtetit. / This article is part of a project that is financially supported by the Public Relations Office of the US Embassy in Tirana. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of State.