JUL 2019: One of the greatest freshwater injustices of 2019 has just been conducted by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee during its 43rd Session in Baku, which has actively covered up many of the main threats to Lake Ohrid in Macedonia / Albania and legitimized the very authorities that are complicit in its slow destruction. For those readers who are unaware, ancient Lake Ohrid is thought to have more species — many world unique — than any other inland water on Earth when measured by surface area.
Accompanying a draft decision to place the Republic of Macedonia’s Ohrid Region on the List of World Heritage in Danger, specialist and expert bodies for UNESCO spoke with one voice:
“There is a rampant, large-scale urban development, inappropriate exploitation of the coastal areas, heightened pollution, fragmentation and destruction of the habitat and a lot of tourism pressure.”
UNESCO World Heritage Centre
“The concerns expressed in the State of Conservation Report relate to concerns that have been reported to the [World Heritage] Committee for just over 30 years, and they arise from the cumulative erosion of the attributes of Outstanding Universal Value and not just from the impact of one or more major projects.”
International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS)
“IUCN recalls the 2017 Reactive Monitoring Mission to the property which observed the presence of numerous threats to Lake Ohrid’s aquatic environment, including uncontrolled discharge and pollution due to inadequate wastewater treatment systems, heavy pressures from tourism, extensive uncontrolled urban development, and inappropriate exploitation of the coastal zones.”
International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
These sentiments were echoed in speeches from civil society, headed by Ohrid SOS and citizens’ heritage movement Europa Nostra.
“Wetland loss; eutrophication; overfishing; illegal construction; infrastructure by road, rail and ship; tourism expansion; hydropower; fires; habitat fragmentation; and reckless waste disposal are all documented pressures contributing to its [the Ohrid Region] death.”
“We wish to congratulate the World Heritage Centre and the advisory bodies for the very clear analysis and the very robust provisions of the proposed decisions which reflect the serious and continued threats which the Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid Region have been facing for so many years.”Europa Nostra
Given the so many threats and the large timescale during which they have not been addressed by successive governments, these expert and specialist organizations were also unanimous about what now needs to be done:
“IUCN considers that these numerous threats combined with the continued lack of key management systems and processes and planning documents combined also with large-scale infrastructure and development projects represent a clear case of potential danger to the property […] it is recommended that the Committee therefore inscribe the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger.”
“The threats to the OUV [Outstanding Universal Value] are indeed firmly established. And, on the basis of that, Mr Chairman, the draft decision recommends inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger as soon as possible.”
UNESCO World Heritage Centre
” ICOMOS considers […] that urgent measures are needed to address these threats; and that these measures need to be implemented in as short a time scale as possible in order to stop the continuing erosion of attributes to Outstanding Universal Value. To this end, we believe that the Danger Listing process should be used as a supportive tool.”
“So, entering the Ohrid region’s 40th anniversary as a World Heritage Site, it is not just World Heritage in Danger, but World Heritage in Multiple Proliferating Dangers. The World Heritage Committee must now take the firmest stand against its fall.”
“We are of the opinion that the inscription of the Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid Region on the World Heritage List in Danger should be perceived also by the State Party as the willingness of the international community to ring the alarm bell and help raise the consciousness, not only among the political leaders and public authorities, but also among the business community and citizens at large that the continuation of the current situation is contrary to the principles of sustainable development”
Arrogantly and misinformedly, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee chose to ignore the advice of all these organizations, despite the fact that three are its own expert advisory bodies. (Full ICOMOS, IUCN and World Heritage Centre testimony here.)
Instead, its members secured amendments to a draft Decision proposed by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, obliterating any reference to the majority of threats and removing provisions to place the Ohrid Region on the List of World Heritage in Danger. The states responsible are clearly visible in the picture below.
How did such a travesty of World Heritage justice happen?
The official external auditor for UNESCO has also raised concerns that decisions were becoming more political and noted an increasing divergence between the advisory bodies’ opinions and World Heritage Committee decisions as early as 2011. The same audit found that State Parties to the World Heritage Convention were replacing experts on the Committee with diplomats, presumably to ensure that their interests are served.
In the case of Macedonia, we know that, when the draft Decision to place the Ohrid Region on the List of World Heritage in Danger was announced, far from stopping illegal construction or getting to work on the leaky wastewater system, the early government reaction was to send its ambassador to meet Brazil’s World Heritage Committee permanent delegate, Mrs Maria Edileuza Fontenele Reis. As you can see from the amendment above, Brazil was part of the gang that removed reference to Ohrid region threats at the 43rd Session.
The other reason that the World Heritage Committee may have decided to amend its decision was the misleading information that appears to have been supplied by the Republic of Macedonia’s delegation:
- Macedonia claims to be making progress with sewerage revitalization. In fact, since a 2010 report by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency revealed that wastewater overflows were taking place up to 100 times per year, nothing has been done to resolve this pollution issue except the creation of a new company headed by the daughter of a local mayor.
- Macedonia stated during the World Heritage Committee’s 43rd Session that it was making an inventory of illegal buildings and was taking significant steps “for a clear long-term governing structure that would prevent abuses and repeated degradations” of the Ohrid region. At the same time as its speaker was claiming this, an Ohrid SOS activist was photographing continued illegal construction at a hotel for which permission was rescinded in 2017.
- Macedonia declared that it has put in place a system for monitoring and controlling water levels at Lake Ohrid. In actuality, a mass fish kill due to lowering water occurred as recently as November 2018.
- Macedonia claimed that a Strategic Environmental Assessment requested by UNESCO had been completed and was in the public consultation process. Ohrid SOS is totally unaware of any such document, although we do know of a Public Information Session that was arranged for 27 May 2019 and then abruptly cancelled with no reschedule date.
Supporting Macedonia, Brazil (again) mentioned that changes to the law were occurring, indicating that these will improve the status of the property. In fact, the process for a newly drafted law specific to the Ohrid region was serially delayed and, even though adopted by the government on May 29, has not yet passed parliament; contains no serious punitive measures (as formally acknowledged by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre); and is likely to be overridden by simultaneous revision of urbanization legislation, in particular the Law on Urban Development and Physical Planning, which is currently under procedure.
Meanwhile, various other State Party members of the World Heritage Committee claimed that significant progress has been made by Macedonia in fulfilling 19 UNESCO recommendations that had been previously requested. By our count, only 3 are fully complete; and around half are fully not complete with no meaningful new action undertaken to eliminate the most serious threats (i.e. wastewater, solid waste, coastal development, illegal construction, habitat loss etc).
Judging by the speeches mentioned above, the expert bodies agree with us.
But isn’t it great that the Ohrid Region is not on the List of World Heritage in Danger?
Far from a punishment, the List of World Heritage in Danger provides states like Macedonia access to the international tools and aid they need to deal with significant threats. As pointed out by Europa Nostra in reference to Ohrid, it is also an excellent mechanism for raising awareness.
Indeed, states like Colombia have successfully and intentionally used danger listing as a way of solving problems and returning World Heritage Sites to the standard of global conservation excellence that they deserve.
Macedonia could have done the same. However, it decided to spend extra resources that could have been used for conservation instead to fly a whole delegation to Baku with the intention of lobbying and manipulating a World Heritage Committee decision. Now, in only 8 months until February 2018 (an extended deadline), it needs to independently fulfill 16 recommendations that it could not achieve in 2 years.
By hiding the scandalous condition of its natural and cultural heritage and eschewing the opportunity for help, it has now secured at least another year of destruction for the Ohrid region too with less support to overcome its numerous challenges.
Meanwhile, the World Heritage Committee’s choice to buy into Macedonia’s misrepresentations in the face of wall-to-wall expert opinion suggests that it is at best ignorant and at worst complicit.
What did Ohrid SOS do?
Ohrid SOS has been continually reporting to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and IUCN with all the environmental abuses that occur in the Ohrid region.
We have also supplied reports to the World Heritage Committee alongside a fully referenced summary letter (see above) that explained not only the threats that are contributing to the decline in the Ohrid Region’s condition as a World Heritage Site, but also demonstrating how the Republic of Macedonia repeatedly promises, but never delivers, action.
While we cannot fault the IUCN or ICOMOS and reserve praise for the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, the World Heritage Committee has proven shockingly irresponsible in ignoring copious evidence to pursue its own decided outcome.
If you don’t believe us, watch it yourselves here (from 05:45:30 approx):