Suffocation

500-600 kilos of fish kill [1] drifted on the surface of Studenchishte Canal in late November, victims of the latest suffocation of Lake Ohrid’s ecosystems, another half-tonne of life lost, another little corner of Macedonian natural heritage washing away on increasingly lifeless waves.

The fish, plashica (Alburnus scoranza), a Western Balkan endemic,  had entered the canal to keep safe from the winter cold. Instead, they found themselves fighting for breath, struggling and writhing higher in the water until there was nothing left to inhale, silver scales reflecting a sun they could no longer feel. 

Exploitation of water resources by hydropower company AD ELEM is a suspected factor. The company regularly releases water from Lake Ohrid to feed power-hungry dams on the River Black Drim.

Not so long ago, Lake Ohrid was drained below legal parameters risking death and chemical change in sensitive and ecosystemically vital shallow zones [2]. This time, sub-optimum water levels shorted the oxygen supplies in the canal, asphyxiating countless fish where they should have been safest from seasonal danger.

Water extraction from Pro-Aqua, the company responsible for the Ohrid City’s water supply may also have been linked to the tragedy. However, Pro-Aqua did take ameliorative action by pumping water from another source when informed that fish were at risk, thereby putting health of the lake ahead of profits for once.

Not all of the actors responded with such timeliness.

Mockery

Nobody knows exactly how much water was released from the lake prior to/during the fish kill incident because lake surface figures posted by AD ELEM and the Macedonian Hydrometeorological Service (UHMR) for November disagree, the former [3] routinely higher than the latter [4].

On November 21, as fish continued to die, the difference in measurements was 5cm, which sounds insignificant. Until you realize that it actually adds up to several million cubic meters of water across the whole area of the lake [5]. 

Since the incident, UHMR has made the incredible claim that it cannot reliably quantify water levels due to a lack of funds [6]. Not only does this make a total mockery of the government monitoring system to prevent power company abuse of Lake Ohrid by having an independent gauge, which was reported to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee [7] in answer to its concerns over mismanagement of water resources [8], but it also begs the question: What exactly can the Macedonian Hydrometeorological Service do?

Despite the discrepancy, it is certain (by all measures) that the lake level was within legal parameters during the tragedy. However, this merely raises more doubts about the robustness of legislative devices to protect Lake Ohrid’s ecosystems and whether the companies that profit from its water have sufficient knowledge of its ecology to do so responsibly.

Warnings

AD ELEM had been warned. Prof. Dr. Trajce Talevski of Hydrobiological Institute Ohrid publicly requested the company to protect Lake Ohrid water levels on 29 October, tagging it on his personal Facebook page and stating, “A large number of plashica have entered Studenchishta Canal. These may suffocate due to a lack of oxygen.” The Hydrobiological Institute also held a meeting about the subject on November 8.

Nonetheless, by November 19, three weeks after Dr. Talevski’s initial warning, Lake Ohrid waters were at exactly the same level (693.25 meters above sea level), even by AD ELEM’s figures. It is then that fish began to die.

Given the time frame, the lack of preparation is damning. Pumping and aeration equipment could have alleviated the disaster if any had been available. Recklessly, neither AD ELEM nor authorities in the Republic of Macedonia had put any in place, and the only suitable equipment within reasonable distance was non-operational. 

Thus, yet more of Lake Ohrid’s living treasure was consigned to its doom.

Sources

  1. Estimate by Prof. Dr. Trajce Talevski of the Hydrobiological Institute Ohrid (personal communication)
  2. Deutsche Welle (2017) Lake Ohrid below minimum level. Who is responsible? (Available 26 November 2018.) Translation in Ohrid SOS (2017) World Heritage on the Edge (pg 79).
  3. ELEM Macedonian Power Plants (2018) Lake Ohrid Water Levels 2018. (Available 28 November 2018)
  4. National Hydrometeorological Service (2018) Weekly Hydrological Information for Rivers and Natural Lakes in the Republic of Macedonia 13-19 November 2018 and 20-26 November 2018. (Available 28 November 2018)
  5. Prof. Dr. Trajce Talevski, Hydrobiological Institute Ohrid.
  6. Ohrid News (2018) Hydological condition of Lake Ohrid cannot be monitored without equipment and qualified staff.
  7. National UNESCO Commission, Ministry of Culture, Government of the Republic of Macedonia (2018) Progress Report on the Implementation of the Recommendations of the Decision 41 COM 7B.34 on the Status of the Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid Region.
  8. UNESCO, ICOMOS, IUCN (2017) Reactive Monitoring Mission Report Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid Region (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). World Heritage Centre, Paris, France.

 

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