Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa, drowned by agricultural chemicals

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  • The indiscriminate use of pesticides in the lands adjacent to Lake Prespa and Lake Ohrid threatens water pollution in these two basins. Uncontrolled agriculture has raised concerns among experts about long-term consequences in the lakes and the surrounding environment, which enjoys the status of a Protected Area under Albanian legislation and is also protected by UNESCO.

    Author: Dhorjela Çule

    Nesti Çobani owns 10 hectares of land near Lake Ohrid, which he cultivates with various crops. He mentions that he uses up to 12 sprayings for apple trees but, in recent years, he also uses up to 4 sprayings for tomatoes and peppers.

    He explains that he doesn’t consult with agriculture specialists, but rather chooses the sprays and pesticides based on personal knowledge gained over the years working the land.

    “I can spot diseases with the naked eye because I’ve been dealing with the land for a lifetime. When I go to the store, I know what pesticide to ask for,” he says.

    Aware of the damage that the excessive use of Plant Protection Products (PPP) can cause, both to consumers and the environment, he believes this is the only solution to protect his crops.

    “I supply several restaurants in Pogradec with my produce and try to use as few chemicals as possible, but if I don’t use them, the crops will be ruined,” he says, confident that the heavy use of pesticides doesn’t reach the waters of the lake.

    The waters of Lake Ohrid, protected by UNESCO, and Lake Prespa, part of the National Park, are seriously threatened by the indiscriminate use of chemicals and pesticides by landowners in their vicinity.

    In the Municipality of Pogradec, out of 17,500 hectares of arable land, 8,137 hectares are cultivated intensively, mainly with cereal crops, vegetables, and fruit trees.

    These pesticides don’t completely break down and end up in the lake, damaging its ecosystem.

    Fatmir Laçej, an agriculture expert, considers chemical fertilizers as poisons that pollute the lake water, so he is categorical about not using them in protected areas.

    “Pogradec is famous for its trout and eel. If we pollute the lake waters to increase agricultural production, the fish we consume will also contain some of these chemicals, harming our health,” explains Laçej.

    Although the law prohibits the use of pesticides in protected areas and mandates strict monitoring of waters, it remains largely unenforced as none of the responsible institutions fulfill their duties.

    Little agriculture, a lot of chemicals

    Svetko Jankulla, an emigrant who has been living in Greece for several years, observes significant changes in agricultural practices upon returning to Pustec, his hometown. He noticed that, a few years ago, only vineyards required pesticide spraying, while other crops thrived with organic fertilizers. However, nowadays, farmers in the region spray almost every crop multiple times.

    Prespa Lake

    Even though he doesn’t consult agricultural specialists, he selects the pesticides based on his personal knowledge, gained over years of working the land. He mentions that he can identify diseases in his crops with his naked eye because he has spent his life tending to the soil. When he visits the agricultural supply store, he knows exactly what type of pesticide to request.

    Despite the reduction in cultivated areas, farmers have expanded the list of crops they grow, all of which now require PPPs. Pandi Andoni, an agricultural specialist in the Municipality of Pustec, states that despite the decrease in cultivated areas due to emigration, the alarm is significant. The runoff from the land reaches the lake, making it crucial to minimize pesticide use in these areas.

    In the Municipality of Pustec, which encompasses villages along the coast of Lake Great Prespa, there are 1,360 hectares of arable and orchard land, of which only half is cultivated. Regardless of the small cultivated area, which reaches about 1,000 hectares, there is great concern since groundwater aquifers extend to the lake’s shorelines.

    According to Fatmir Laçej, an agriculture expert in the region, it is crucial to minimize pesticide use in these areas because they can infiltrate the soil and reach the lake. Besides land pollution, the uncontrolled use of PPPs poses a serious threat to both groundwater and surface water from the chemicals that remain in the environment for a long time.

    Xhoxhi Kazllarov, an agriculture specialist, explains that nearly 85% of the pesticide quantity used is absorbed by plants, with the remaining portion entering the environment. During rain, the opposite occurs, with most of the pesticides ending up in the soil.

    Environmental expert Mihallaq Qirjo notes that the biggest risk of these chemical residues, which are not absorbed by plants, is that they ultimately end up in the lake. Subsequently, they favor the growth of algae, which eliminates many microorganisms and endemic species.

    Qirjo adds that both inorganic and organic residues inevitably lead to lake pollution because they contain phosphorus and other chemical elements. In the long run, the presence of phosphorus would lead the lake, currently oligotrophic, to eutrophication, transforming it into a habitat for blue-green algae that impoverishes the aquatic ecosystem.

    Besnik Skënderasi, an agriculture expert, further explains that the uncontrolled use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides contaminates groundwater. These pollutants then flow into the lakes, poisoning the plankton in the water near these plots. Consequently, this leads to the contamination of the entire plant and animal ecosystem within the water system.

    In conclusion, the excessive and uncontrolled use of pesticides in the Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa regions poses a severe threat to these UNESCO-protected ecosystems. The pollution of these lakes not only affects the local environment but also endangers the health of those consuming products grown in these areas. Additionally, the improper use of pesticides results in long-lasting contamination of the water, which could have far-reaching ecological consequences. It’s imperative for local authorities to enforce regulations and raise awareness among farmers about sustainable and responsible agricultural practices to protect these unique ecosystems.

    How the law is violated in protected areas.

    The development of agriculture in the vicinity of protected areas and within them is regulated by special law (Council of Ministers Decision No. 317, dated May 15, 2019), which prohibits the use of pesticides. However, the facts gathered by Investigative Network Albania show that no institution has taken this legal obligation seriously. As a result, agricultural development in the areas near Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa is out of control.

    The law allows the use of pesticides only in cases where other alternatives for controlling plant diseases are ineffective. Even in these cases, the use must be strictly controlled by local authorities and other environmental and population protection institutions.

    Institutions responsible for monitoring and preventing environmental consequences of agricultural activities have failed to fulfill their legal obligations.

    Despite the legal obligation, the Ministry of Agriculture has not made any distinction between commonly used pesticides and those that could be used in or near protected areas.

    To ensure consumer and environmental protection, the law requires farmers to obtain written permits from the Administration of Protected Areas for the use of pesticides on their land.

    Furthermore, farmers who sell their products are required to keep a register that accurately reflects the time, quantity, type, and frequency of pesticides used. These legal requirements remain unenforced, both by farmers and institutional authorities, becoming a continuous source of pollution and a threat to public health.

    The latest monitoring report by UNESCO, published in January 2020, notes that the development of agriculture and the use of pesticides have increased pollution in Lake Ohrid, with some parts of it experiencing eutrophication.

    “Water pollution is the most important issue in nature conservation in Lake Ohrid, which suffers from untreated sewage, and agricultural runoff, contributing to its eutrophication,” the report states.

    The agricultural pharmacy in the village of Buçimas

    One of the pharmacists in the village of Buçimas near Pogradec stated, under the condition of anonymity, that farmers do not keep records of the use of PMBs (Plant Protection Products), but he himself maintains records of the farmers who purchase products from his pharmacy. According to him, the most frequent requests from farmers are for products such as diamond phosphate, also known as DAP, used as a fertilizer, for potassium sulfates, for ammonium sulfates, and for urea.

    “Keeping records is a legal obligation that none of the farmers adhere to. I try to help by keeping a record of what they purchase,” he says, adding that farmers are not advised by agricultural specialists but rather purchase PMBs based on their empirical knowledge.

    Pogradec, farmer conducting spraying

    Experts raise concerns that in our country the use of chemical fertilizers, which for farmers should be the last option for plant protection, as they contain highly toxic chemicals in their composition, is actually the first.

    At the top of the list are insecticides, such as phosphoric esters, chloro organics, such as carbonates, and neonicotinoids, which are extremely harmful.

    Experts in this field insist that the use of chemical fertilizers should be specific and done very scrupulously; this means that the percentage and doses for each preparation should be applied.

    “There are cases where phyto pharmacists exceed the recommended dose of these preparations. If a chemical preparation is used at 2 kg per ha, they suggest 2.5 kg or, in the case where 0.2% is required, they recommend 0.5%,” explains agriculture expert Besnik Skënderasi.

    The Action Plan for the Sustainable Use of PMBs, 2022-2032 highlights the lack of specific regulations that establish measures or criteria for protecting aquatic and terrestrial organisms from their use. Considering the environmental impact of PMB use in protected areas, several measures are recommended to reduce their pollution levels.

    “It is necessary to create a buffer zone that defines the boundaries of the areas where pesticide use is allowed. Additionally, there is a need to establish safety zones at a safe distance from water environments to protect them from the effects of PMB use,” is recommended in this document.

    Unmonitored lake

    The National Environmental Agency, as the authority responsible for monitoring the water quality of the lakes, admits in response to the information request that the monitoring of the water in Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa includes only a few parameters and chemical elements. The institution acknowledges that it does not monitor chemical residues deposited in the lakes from the use of pesticides.

    “This parameter is not included in our monitoring program. Monitoring is carried out 3 times/year during the specified seasonal periods with the Framework Water Directive,” AKM stated. They also mentioned that measurements are taken for some parameters and chemical elements such as pH, temperature, total phosphorus, etc.

    The Ohrid-Prespa Biosphere Reserve Management Center (formerly Lake Ohrid monitoring station)

    In the Management Plan for the Protected Landscape of Pogradec, 2017-2027, concerns are raised about the inadequate monitoring of the lake environment and other environmental factors, which hinder proper management and decision-making, and conceal the extent of many threats.

    “The collection of monitoring data is not sufficient; they need to be made available, understood, and acted upon. Therefore, measures are needed to ensure the publication and dissemination of monitoring results and their integration into decisions and plans,” the document states.

    The contamination of Lake Ohrid’s water extends to a wider radius due to the pollution of the Çërravës, Vërdovë, and Rëmenjit rivers, which also flow into the lake. The 2021 Environmental Status Report by AKM reflects the situation regarding the pollution level of the rivers flowing into Lake Ohrid. Analyses show that Lake Ohrid, as environmental experts raise concerns, is becoming mesotrophic.

    “Lake Ohrid has this pronounced problem because several rivers flow into it, both from the Albanian and the North Macedonian part,” says environmental expert Mihallaq Qirjo.

    Pollution of Lake Ohrid from PPPs is a significant issue for the neighboring country as well. However, unlike Albania, the authorities in North Macedonia continuously monitor and control its pollution levels.

    Experts insist that monitoring should be conducted near the lakes, through laboratory stations. Such a station existed on the shores of Lake Pogradec for more than 10 years, but it has now been closed and its equipment transferred to Tirana.

    “Measurements were carried out by the Hydro-Meteorological Institute, the Institute of Biological Research, and the Pogradec Laboratory. The monitoring station remained open from 2001 to 2013. Later, the laboratory equipment was removed and taken to Tirana. Only the building remains here,” explains environmental expert Arian Merolli. Given that the lake is threatened by various polluting factors, including PPPs, Merolli advocates for the station to be reinstated in Pogradec.

    Expired pesticides

    Muhamer Balli, from the village of Zagorçan in Pogradec, has a 2-hectare plot of land along the Drilon River, which he cultivates with apples, beans, and forage for livestock. He raises concerns that in some cases, he has had to make two pesticide applications, not respecting the expiration date, or he has used double the recommended dose of pesticides due to their ineffectiveness. He suggests that expired pesticides are being sold in the market, which have no effect on eliminating crop pests.

    The Ministry of Agriculture annually issues an approved list of Plant Protection Products (PMB) and its update depends on the updates made by the monitoring instruments of the European Union. However, this process is associated with several problems.

    “Currently, Albania faces key challenges in the trade of PMBs, including: informal trade, trade of unregistered PMBs and the inability to trace them, as well as trading them beyond their expiration dates,” says the Action Plan for Sustainable Use of PMBs, 2022-2032.

    Agronomist Ylver Bylykbashi claims that PMBs removed from the Ministry of Agriculture’s list can still be found in the market. According to him, farmers still use Rogor and Pirinex or Chlorpyrifos. Additionally, Pirilukt, the worm control agent for apples and cherries, can also be found in the market despite being removed from the list.

    “Chemical fertilizers, which contain nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, and their excessive use by farmers cause high environmental pollution,” says Bylykbashi.

    Pandi Andoni, an agriculture specialist in the Municipality of Pustec, also says that farmers often complain that these pesticides are ineffective.

    “There are complaints from farmers about pesticides, but they are available in the market, and farmers work with them. There are cases where they buy them from Northern Macedonia, but there are also cases where farmers from neighboring villages come to us to buy them because of the price,” he explains.

    INSTAT (Institute of Statistics) does not have specific data on the quantity of PMBs imported into Albania, but it has statistics on chemical and plastic products imported into the country from various sources. In 2022, Albania imported approximately 394 tons of chemical and plastic products from various countries. The Ministry of Agriculture also lacks accurate figures on the exact amount of PMBs used in the country.

    In response to the request for information regarding monitoring and controls on the trade of PMBs, AKU (Albanian Competition Authority) explains that in 2022, 1,171 inspections were conducted nationwide, with 74 in the Korça region. For the period of January-June 2023, 390 inspections were carried out nationwide, with 22 of them in the Korça region.

    AKU Examinations for 2022-2023

    Out of all these measures, only 2 warnings were issued to subjects in 2022 by the Regional Directorate of AKU, Korçë, and as of 2023, no administrative measures have been taken yet.

    Currently, sample analyses are conducted by ISUV, but according to the KLSH, this institution, due to capacity constraints, has limited inspections and controls.

    “The failure of ISUV to fulfill its legal obligation regarding the collection of samples and conducting analyses within the prescribed period, or not doing them at all (during the period 2018-2019), has influenced AKU not to take measures in a timely manner to block the sale of PPPs that have resulted in ‘Non-compliant’, thus exposing the consumer to the risk of their use,” the KLSH report from January to September 2022 states.

    Experts, in the face of alarming pollution, not only demand the enforcement of the law but also suggest moving towards biological warfare in protected areas, as well as cultivating crops that are resistant to pests.

    “In these areas, it is advisable to move towards biological warfare,” says agriculture expert Fatmir Laçej.

    Agriculture expert Besnik Skënderasi supports the same argument, stating that PPPs should be replaced with the use of various insects and microorganisms, which are allies of humans in the fight against diseases and pests in agricultural crops.

    “I would suggest that in these areas, traditional, indigenous agricultural crops be cultivated, which are generally resistant to diseases and pests,” concludes the expert.

    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.