About the Ohrid SOS Citizens’ Initiative: Who we are, why we exist, and why you should join us

blatotoesrcenaezeroto1. When was the Ohrid SOS Citizens` Initiative established and what is its purpose?

The initiative Ohrid SOS was established by a group of concerned citizens following a public discussion about A Draft Report on the Strategic Environmental Assessment; Amendments to the General Urban Plan for Ohrid, which took place at the Municipality of Ohrid on January 16th 2015. According to over 80% of the explicitly stated conclusions in this document, which was commissioned by the Municipality of Ohrid, completed by the Engineering Institute “Macedonia”, and approved by the Macedonian Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning, any activity in Urban Block Studenchishte Marsh (UB17.1) will directly and negatively affect the uniqueness of the whole local ecosystem.[1] Further, the draft report also says that, in terms of the intended amendments to UB 17.1, there is no measure that would reduce the harmful impact directly on Studenchishte Marsh and indirectly on the lake, except non-implementation.[2]

Thus, we decided that it’s about time for citizens to take matters in their own hands and protect Ohrid Lake and its surroundings, which are recognized around the world as Macedonia’s most significant natural heritage. It is our civil duty to respect nature and protect the living environment. The right to a clean natural environment is a basic human right, and as Article 43, Line 2 of the Constitution of the Republic of Macedonia states, “Everyone is obliged to promote and protect the environment.” Our goal is precisely to fulfill this civil duty.

2. What are the crucial issues you call upon that need treatment by the authorities?

The most troublesome issue, according to SOS Ohrid, is the immense risk of Studenchishte Marsh’s destruction and the consequent deterioration of Ohrid Lake, as the marsh’s primary function is to serve as its natural filter. That constitutes a serious threat to the biological diversity of both the lake and the marsh.

Ohrid Lake is the biggest and most important natural lake in Macedonia. Moreover, it is the oldest lake in Europe, and the most significant stagnant-water ecosystem on the European continent. It is characterized by a rich history and culture, archeological sites, and natural beauty, and is home to over 200 endemic species. As a result, in 1979 and 1980 respectively, the lake and the city of Ohrid were inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. The world decided to protect the lake because it regards it of global importance. Can Macedonia handle the fallout of letting this gem be destroyed?

3. Studenchishte Marsh has stirred the public and your reaction was even stronger. Where do you believe the solution can be found for this extremely important area of Ohrid Lake?

As you said yourself, Studenchishte Marsh is of extreme—we would say utmost—importance for Ohrid Lake. If an area is under protection, it certainly doesn’t mean that the city loses. Quite the contrary, the marsh, with its rich biodiversity, can serve as an excellent site for education and scientific research, and that is not all. We see the protected marsh as a place to attract a variety of tourists from scientists to adventurers. It can be a location where generations of students—be they from elementary schools, high schools or universities—would get to know the (natural) wealth of Macedonia, which would contribute towards elevating ecological consciousness. Thus, eco-tourism is where we see the solution. And that is nothing new to Ohrid. Alternative tourism has been practiced here for a while already, and it is one of the most attractive forms of tourism – round tours visiting mountain spots, villages, small towns, rivers and the lakeside etc. By including the marsh in this, not only would Macedonia’s tourism offer be enriched, but new jobs for young and qualified locals would emerge. The marsh offers excellent conditions for this type of tourism, which, of even greater benefit, is not necessarily season-dependent, but can be practiced all year long. Put simply, the government budget would accrue additional income from (leisure) tours, work-shops, and study tours, and the marsh would play a significant role in the education of future generations about environmental protection, i.e. developing their moral and ethical values. Healthy minds create a healthy society.

4. You also oppose the construction of 12-meter-wide path for pedestrians, cyclists, roller-skaters, etc.

We always use facts—in particular those that emerged from the Environmental Impact Assessment with respect to the Environmental Protection Law—provided by independent experts. In all of our public statements, we call upon those facts, which say that Studenchishte Marsh is a natural reserve of endemic plant and animal species, and a breeding location for many cyprinid fish. Considering these facts, in its assessment, Ohrid’s Hydrological Institute, advises against any kind of construction at this location.[3]

We find the widening of the recreation path unnecessary as its current capacity is more than enough to manage the activities for which it is designed. However, it is in need of reconstruction, and, as part of that undertaking, canals should be dug in order to maintain the connection between the marsh and the lake instead of destroying it even further. The marsh is the lungs of the lake! Can you live without lungs?

The reconstruction of the path was to be completed without cutting down the mature trees that are hugely important for the animal life in the area—birds, amphibians etc.—and it should have been undertaken in coordination with environmental experts.

5. You stood against the construction of new hotels along the lake shore. According to you, what are the consequences of this kind of urbanization?

Urbanization is not supposed to take place alongside or within the lake. Building more accommodation facilities further increases the threat to the endemic flora and fauna that mostly live alongside the lake. By building, we additionally incur adjoining roads, urban beaches and similar unwanted projects on the very shore. The construction of platforms in the lake, which are certainly planned to accompany the new hotels, will affect the natural circulation of the water. Furthermore, putting up hotels will most likely cut off water reeds, which are not just a breeding place for many fish species and water birds, but which also serve as a bio-filter of the lake water. In fact, large volumes of organic and non-organic matter are absorbed by the reeds and thus removed from the circulation cycle of the water. Also worthy of note is that the capacity of the sewage system in Ohrid was reached long ago, and bringing more waste water will further decrease its ability to function properly. Consequently, it makes more sense to renovate existing accommodation facilities or convert other buildings, as there are many that are barely—or not at all—functional, which only serve as ruins and damage the image of Ohrid. The sustainable development and efficient use of resources is the future of our planet. I mean, is there any sense in investing in a new closet if your old one is half empty?

Here, I would like to commend the responsible attitude of Albania towards the lake in the past year. In that respect, they have taken several steps to meet UNESCO’s requirements, such as the removal of existing infrastructure along or inside the lake.

6. What is your opinion about Ohrid as part of UNESCO? Could Ohrid be removed from the list of protected sites as a result of the projects it is undertaking?

In its Report on the Advisory Mission to the World Heritage Property after visiting Ohrid in 2013, UNESCO—in a very diplomatic, subtle manner typical for an institution of its rank—says that if activities against the protection of the lake continue, then the UNESCO protected-site status could be withdrawn.

Just as a reminder, in 2007, the protected zone between the desert and seaside hills in Oman, the home of the Arabian oryx (a type of antelope), was removed from UNESCO’s World Heritage list. The main reason was the reduction of the oryx sanctuary by 90 percent. In 2009, Dresden’s Elbe Valley lost its UNESCO status as a result of the construction of the four-lane Waldschloesschen Bridge too.

7. Why do some imply politics as the motivation behind your activism? Could that discourage you from pursuing the protection of Ohrid Lake in the future?

Ohrid Lake is internationally recognized and has been protected by UNESCO since 1979! Its protection and promotion is a constitutional obligation and of public interest.

Here, once more, we would like to point to article 43 of the Macedonian Constitution, which states that everyone is obliged to promote and protect the environment. We, as citizens who respect the constitution, feel that our responsibility is to safeguard this precious gift from Mother Nature. Therefore, we are not concerned with political infighting. No labeling or humiliation will discourage us. On the contrary, we will be even louder and more outspoken, as we believe that as nature does not know of political parties, neither do we. We are here to protect nature by any means.

 

[1] Borka Kovacevic PhD, A Draft Report on the Strategic Environmental Assessment; Amendments to the General Urban Plan for Ohrid, Engineering Institute “Macedonia” Skopje, 131p.

[2] Ibid., 129p.

[3] Borka Kovacevic PhD, A Draft Report on the Strategic Environmental Assessment; Amendments to the General Urban Plan for Ohrid, Engineering Institute “Macedonia” Skopje, 137p.

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