The newest changes and amendments to the general urban plans for the city of Ohrid 2014-2024 are threatening to wipe out an entire ecosystem, and in doing so- cause one of the biggest environmental disasters Macedonia has ever seen.
It seems as though the UNESCO protected status could not save the city of Ohrid and the lake from the rapid urbanization taking full swing in the world right now. In 1979, the UNESCO Committee decided to inscribe the Ohrid Lake on the World Heritage List under natural criteria. The lake is one of fifty deepest and oldest lakes in Europe and with its 212 endemic species is classified as one of the most important water ecosystem in the world.
So it came as a shock to the Macedonian public when the new amendments to the general urban plan for Ohrid 2014-2024 were first presented this January. Among the new locations planned for urbanization is Studenchishte Marsh, a lush wetland ecosystem directly connected to lake Ohrid, that serves an important role as a natural filter for the waters of the lake. The Studenchishte Marsh stretches on a surface of approximately 70 hectares, and is home to many plant and animal species, as well as significant plant communities. The Marsh is also part of the important reed belt found around lake Ohrid, that serves as a nesting ground, food and shelter for many species, as well as oxygen production and filtration for the lake waters.
According to the new plans for the urban block 17.1- Studenchishte Marsh, a new marina, luxury housing, kept parks and other buildings will replace the Marshes. It is unclear why this plan directly contradicts a Draft Report on the Strategic Environmental Assessment for the Amendments to the General Urban Plan for Ohrid which was commissioned by the Municipality of Ohrid (also initiator of the new urban plans), completed by the Engineering Institute “Macedonia”, and approved by the Macedonian Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning. In this report it is clearly stated that:
… the intended amendment of the Urban Block 17.1- Studenchishte Marsh, will directly and negatively affect the uniqueness of the whole ecosystem. The impact of the new changes will be direct, cumulative and long-term for the biodiversity, soil, water, air, microclimate.
Citizen of Ohrid and the entire country have recently formed a citizen initiative under the name Ohrid SOS, as a last attempt to warn about the dangers from any construction activities inside the Studenchishte Marsh. To raise awareness about the issue among fellow citizen, the Initiative organized a spring cleaning inside the Marshes for World Water Day 2015.
Studenchiste 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.- explains Ohrid SOS
The current mayor of the city of Ohrid, dr. Nikola Bakracheski in a recent public speaking said that the Studenchishte Marsh does not exist anymore and what is now left is just a muddy surface. He accused the opposing party for the destruction of the Marshland when construction activities first started there, as at the time they were on power. That speech he gave was right after a municipality hearing where the local council voted on a conclusion that confirms 5 hectares of Sudenchishte Marsh are living and should be protected. In the same day two very contradictory statements were given- one that there is no Marsh, the other that a Marsh still exists- but only on a surface of 5 hectares. Which is why his speech stirred up a lot of controversy with the public.
However both images done inside the Studenchishte Marsh as part of the research for the Study about the condition of the remaining Studenchishte Marsh from 2012 and photos taken this month by activists from Ohrid SOS, clearly show the existence of a thriving ecosystem. These past two weeks both retired and current scientists from the Hydrobiological institute- Ohrid are also speaking out against the urbanization of the Studenchishte Marsh, asking the authorities to think about what they are doing.
Regardless of your decision gentlemen, there is a Marsh, and not 5 hectares as you say, but at least three times more. And you have no right to destroy. Nobody voted for you to take away our children’s right to drink clean water from the lake. You can not destroy the natural filter of the Lake. Who gave you the right to destroy an entire ecosystem? I certainly did not! – said dr. Trajce Talevski, scientist at the Hydrobiological Institute- Ohrid
The entire remaining part of the Studenchishte Marsh should be placed under special protection due to high natural value as a separate ecosystem, but also as an integral part of the lake. – said dr. Marina Talevska, scientist at the Hydrobiological Institute- Ohrid.
In the meantime, the urban communities around the lake have signed a Declaration for the preservation of Ohrid as a World cultural and natural heritage. In the declaration they are appealing to stop any plans for urbanization of the lake and the natural reserve Galicica as important biodiversity hotspots. The Declaration is signed by 7 urban communities, 8 local nonprofits and 4 experts from the region.
Despite having so many opposing opinions and pressure from the public, plans to urbanize Studenchishte Marsh and lake Ohrid still remain. On the other side of the lake, Albanian authorities have taken several steps to meet UNESCO’s requirements, such as the removal of existing infrastructure along or inside the lake.