Фото: Бојан Блажевски

The wide sandy beaches of Lake Prespa in the very south of the Republic of North Macedonia are ideal for tourists in the summer months, but only until the visitors decide to replace sunbathing with swimming in the lake. Silt, algae, muddy and shallow water are everyday experience of the visitors at Lake Prespa, and the dire situation with the receding shoreline rings the alarm about the survival of the rich plant and animal life in this lake.

According to the latest data from the Hydrometeorological Service (UHMR) – from mid-July this year – the water level of Lake Prespa near the Nakolec Measuring Station was 842.33 m AMSL and is only eight centimeters above the absolute minimum of 824.25 m AMSL. Compared to the water level average for July, Lake Prespa’s waterline is currently as much as 1.86 meters below average.

The receding of the lake takes alarming scope, which has been visible to the naked eye for several years. Tourism suffers major damage due to the receding water level, and the beach concessionaires and hotel operators see Lake Prespa vanishing bit by bit each year. The biggest problem lies in the danger to the plant and animal life in the lake.

More than 12 years after the signing of the Agreement for Protection of the Prespa Region, the three countries, Macedonia, Greece and Albania held the first meetings at the beginning of summer, when they set out the guidelines for joint sustainable management and promotion of Prespa. The initial meeting of the Committee of the Managing Body of Prespa Park and the Working Group on Water Management was greeted by the environmental organizations, who consider this moment a historic turning point in the protection of Prespa.

The in-depth analysis of the water levels of Lake Prespa by the Macedonian Ecological Society (MES) notes that the changes of the water level are a result of variations in the water inflow from the rivers and the groundwater, the precipitation, the levels of the evaporation of the lake and the water used for irrigation. Three of the four key factors are related directly or indirectly to the impact of climate change, for which Meta.mk has been writing for a long time, especially about the rise of the average temperatures in the country as well as the changing nature of the rainfalls in recent years.

“Out of the four factors menтioned, evaporation stands out as the prime one, because it represents a natural buffer system that mitigates change. The degree of evaporation directly depends on the surface of the lake water, which in turn varies with the changes of the water level. Thus, when the water column is lower, the lake surface is smaller, and so is the surface from which evaporation can occur. Consequently, the lost water is compensated to some extent by the inevitable decrease in evaporation when the level of lake water is lower“, states the analysis of MES.

The analysis quotes a 2017 study by Van der Schriek and Giannakopoulos, which suggests that looking at the numbers cumulatively from 1951, the biggest “culprit” for the reduced evaporation from the lake is irrigation, which accounts for 70% of the loss, while reduced rainfall caused only 30% of the loss of the lake water.

In the report and the analysis published on the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning’s web site, as part of the activities for overcoming the situation with Lake Prespa, state that the absolutely lowest recorded water level was 842.75 m AMSL, registered on the 26th of November 2008. In reality, however, the data from UHMR for the middle of July this year show a new record minimal water level of 842.33 m AMS, and the level of the lake water during the past few months has been similar.

Hence, the question comes up to what extent the intervention of the state authorities of the three neighboring countries, together with the public awareness that the media and the NGOs are trying to raise among the local population, can be timely and prevent the further dying out of Lake Prespa? To overcome the situation, an Action Plan with measures has been prepared, but they are yet to be implemented.

The Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning states for Meta.mk that the updated Water Management Plan in the Prespa Basin contains protection measures ranging from 1 to 3, but their implementation requires a period of up to 6 years.

“The measures designated by 1 are of utmost importance and require immediate implementation. The measures designated by 2 are of very high importance and a relatively urgent implementation is required. The measures designated by 3 are of high importance, but the implementation should be in accordance with the available finances“, the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning explains.

And for each of the three special groups of measures, about €17.6 million will be needed. The measures classified in Group 1, with the highest urgency, require €4.8 million.
“This group mainly includes measures for control of water withdrawal (irrigation) and flood protection as well as regulatory measures,” the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning explained.

The implementation of the second group of measures of very high importance will require around €5.9 million, which will be directed towards erosion control, improvement of the sewage network, flood protection, agricultural measures, as well as building the institutional capacity of the relevant authorities and stakeholders in the region.

For the third group of measures marked with Priority 3, expenditures of about €6.9 million are foreseen, which includes the construction of wastewater treatment plants for smaller agglomerations of settlements in the region, monitoring activities of the Prespa Basin, wider capacity building of farmers, improvement of the waste collection system, as well as activities related to the implementation of the existing legislation and regulation.

Otherwise, on the 15th of June 2021, the Macedonian government made a decision to establish a Commission for monitoring the implementation of the measures under the Lake Prespa Action Plan, which proposed as priority activities the implementation of the action plan; the upgrading and the continuous monitoring of the National Monitoring Network in the basin of Lake Prespa and Lake Ohrid for surface water hydrology, groundwater hydrology and meteorology; the preparation of a Water Balance Study for Lake Prespa with the latest available data (1951-2020) and a study for determining the impact of water losses on biodiversity and identifiying indicators to monitor the effectiveness of the measures implemented to improve the condition resulting from water loss.

So far, the Commission has proposed conducting investigations on water leakage across the karst range of Galichica, including the use of isotopes methods for water movement, as well as measures to strengthen institutional capacities in the area of water and nature, with special emphasis on monitoring.

Nevertheless, the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning admits that most of the activities for protection of Lake Prespa are realized through foreign donors’ projects.

Among them, with the project “Identification of Anthropogenic Influences of Lake Prespa “financed by PONT, in the past period, research has been conducted for determining the quality of the water in the defined sites in the littoral zone of Lake Prespa which covers part from Dolno Dupeni to Stenje, while through the” Prespa Project ” implemented by the Macedonian Ecological Society, The Society for the protection of Prespa from Greece and Environmental Protection from Albania, as a continuation of the previous project, the capacities for nature protection have been strengthened through cooperation of the NGO sector in the Prespa cross-border region.

Particularly important is the EU for Prespa Project, which with funding from IPA III for cross-border cooperation will enable the implementation of the envisaged measures to prevent water and soil pollution, protect endangered species and foster the sustainability of local economic and agricultural practices.

“The action will put in use wastewater collection and treatment systems and solid waste into operation and will train local communities for environmental protection. This project will support North Macedonia in reaching the country’s climate change goals. Measures for composting and local reuse of biodegradable materials will allow local communities to gradually adopt the concept of circular economy,” the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning explained.

Thanks to projects with GIZ and UNDP, the Hydrometeorological Service has managed to improve its monitoring system in the basin of Lake Prespa and Lake Ohrid, with automatic measuring instruments at the following stations: hydrological in Ohrid-Lake Ohrid, Lozhani-River Crn Drim, Botun-River Sateska, Resen-River Golema and Stenje-Lake Prespa and meteorological in Ohrid, Slivovo and Resen.

The deployment of hydrological automatic stations is expected to be finalized this year, and accordingly the installation of meteorological stations on UHMR.

However, as the three countries deal with the water used for irrigation by farmers, there appears to be no solution for now. The Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning says that the use of the lake water is controlled by issuing water management permits for irrigation, which in turn should be controlled by the State Environmental Inspectorate. Since the lake is located on the border between Macedonia, Albania and Greece, such controls of illegal use of the lake water for irrigation should be synchronized in the three countries.

The Macedonian Ecological Society concludes that the lesson we need to draw from the protection of Lake Prespa is clear: the natural climate and human-induced changes, as well as the direct utilization of water for human needs contribute to fluctuations in the water level of Prespa Lake.

“The current question of saving Lake Prespa is not only about saving Prespa’s unique natural and cultural values, but also about saving the way of life that we have built in this system. After all, this is the only way we know how to survive,“ the Macedonian Ecological Society said.