Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - ‘Gone to hell’: The battle for Europe’s oldest Lake Ohrid



‘Gone to hell’: The battle for Europe’s oldest Lake Ohrid

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Diver and archeologist Nikola Paskali collects waste from the beach in the old town near the shore of the Lake Ohrid, southwestern of the Republic of North Macedonia. AFP

‘Gone to hell’: The battle for Europe’s oldest Lake Ohrid

Dimitar Pendoski marches to the end of a rickety walkway, skips around sunbathing youngsters and sweeps back a tarpaulin protecting his empty lakeside restaurant, recently closed by officials under pressure from UNESCO.

North Macedonia’s government is scrambling to enforce environmental protection rules and shut down places like Pendoski’s self-built restaurant, to save Lake Ohrid from being placed on the UN culture agency’s list of endangered world heritage sites.

“This way, everybody loses – the employees, the local economy, and of course the tourists because they have no place to go on the beach,” Pendoski said, a point hotly contested by environmentalists.

Thanks to its unique animal and plant life, prehistoric ruins and Byzantine churches, Lake Ohrid and its surroundings have enjoyed four decades as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Only a few dozen places around the world have won the status for both their nature and their culture, a source of prestige for Lake Ohrid – and a major bonus in marketing the area to tourists.

But the UN body has said the Ohrid region will be put on the “in danger” list during a high-level meeting later in July because of concerns over uncontrolled urbanisation and pollution.

Unless North Macedonia can perform diplomatic miracles, the lake will be cited along with such marvels as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Ohrid city mayor Konstantin Georgieski is at the centre of a tangle of local and national government bodies tasked with addressing the problems.

His mission is complicated by the international dimension – part of the lake is in Albania, and their officials are also taking part in discussions with UNESCO.

But Georgieski is not panicking.

“It is not going to mean the end of the world,” he says of the UNESCO’s decision, pointing out that the heritage status does not bring any funding.

“After 30 years of negligence, it’s normal that they [UNESCO] are losing patience.”

‘Cancer of the lake’

UNESCO first added the Macedonian side of the lake to its world heritage list in 1979, expanding the entry to include the Albanian side only in 2019.

During the time of Yugoslavia, Ohrid was a sleepy settlement known mostly for its hospitals and as a training post for sports teams.

After Macedonia’s secession and Yugoslavia’s chaotic disintegration in the 1990s, however, tourist developments began expanding along the lakeshore.

Esplanades, five-storey hotels, restaurants and bars have sprung up – and with them came apartment blocks amounting to a satellite of the old town.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A family sunbath on the beach near an excavator used to demolish illegal buildings in the no-build zone on the shore of the Lake Ohrid. AFP

Entrepreneurs exploited legal loopholes to build on protected land, often without even connecting to the sewerage system.

UNESCO estimates one third of buildings in the wider Ohrid region pump waste directly into the lake.

“Everything has gone to hell,” says Nikola Paskali, an archaeologist who has spent two decades diving on the lake.

Sometimes he searches for Bronze Age relics but sometimes he hunts out junk – TVs, toilets and even a full-size bathtub are among the items he has pulled from the deep.

“Litter is the cancer of the lake,” he says, accusing the government of doing little to protect biodiversity in a lake that formed more than 1.3 million years ago and is home to dozens of unique species.

UNESCO has highlighted problems from illegal buildings, logging and fish farms, to river diversions and haphazard road construction.

Much of this is underpinned by the region’s desire to become a centre for tourism.

“If we started now, it would take years and years to repair the damage we have done,” says Katarina Vasileska from grassroots environmental group SOS Ohrid.

‘This is not Ibiza’

But cleaning up the lake comes with risks.

Mayor Georgieski recently ordered the destruction of several structures built over the lake that served as makeshift nightclubs and restaurants.

“It’s difficult to destroy someone’s property in a small town like ours,” he says. “I’m a personal enemy of these people now.”

But he reflects that business owners need to change their mindset, adding: “This is not Ibiza.”

Georgieski envisages a town that welcomes sustainable levels of tourists attracted by culture and nature rather than partying.

But UNESCO said in its most recent report that restoration work had damaged the “authenticity” of some churches, and that the unique wood-beamed buildings of the old town were at risk from uncontrolled development.

Restaurateur Pendoski does not disagree with UNESCO or the mayor, but he claims he was closed down despite having received all the necessary permits.

“We all share the goal of having more guests while protecting the lake and nature, but there has to be some local economic development,” he says.

Environmentalists argue, however, that pitting economic development against ecological concerns is a false debate.

“We have to keep the lake clean because otherwise we will lose everything, we will lose tourism,” says diver Paskali.

Activist Vasileska also points out that receiving permits is not a green light for pollution.

“You may employ 30 people,” she says, “but you pollute the lake for 50,000.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Prince Norodom Ranariddh passes away at 77

    Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the second son of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk and former First Prime Minister of Cambodia, has passed away in France at the age of 77. “Samdech Krom Preah Norodom Ranariddh has passed away this morning in France just after 9am Paris-time,”

  • General’s gun smuggling ring busted

    The Military Police sent six military officers to court on November 22 to face prosecution for possession of 105 illegal rifles and arms smuggling, while investigators say they are still hunting down additional accomplices. Sao Sokha, deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and commander of

  • Cambodia, Thailand to discuss border reopening

    Cambodian authorities from provinces along the Cambodia-Thailand border will meet with Thai counterparts to discuss reopening border checkpoints to facilitate travel, transfer of products and cross-border trade between the two countries. Banteay Meanchey provincial deputy governor Ly Sary said on November 22 that the provincial administration

  • More Cambodians studying in US

    The number of Cambodian students studying at US colleges and universities in 2020-21 increased by 14.3 per cent over the previous year despite the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a recent US government report. The 2021 Open Doors report on International Educational Exchange showed that 848 Cambodian students studied

  • Rise in planned flights lifts travel hopes

    Six airlines have applied to resume flights in December, while two others have put in for additional flights and routes, according to State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA) head Mao Havannall on November 29. These account for 43 new weekly domestic and international flights in December, up 16

  • PM: Do not defile Tonle Sap swamp forest or else

    Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered police to arrest anyone – including government officials – involved with the deforestation of the flooded forests surrounding the Tonle Sap Lake because it is an area important to the spawning of many species of fish, among other reasons. Speaking in a