BIRN brought together activists, experts and officials from across Kosovo to discuss the environmental damage caused by gravel extraction, wastewater and hydropower plants.
In a BIRN-hosted debate broadcast on Wednesday, activists from across Kosovo highlighted some of the country’s biggest causes of environmental damage, including gravel extraction, wastewater and hydropower operations.
According to the activists, previous governments have been a contributing factor to the damage caused, having aligned with powerful businessmen rather than protecting natural resources.
Svetozar Aleksic, an environmentalist from Ranilug in eastern Kosovo, highlighted the failure to protect the Krivareka river, which has caused severe repercussions. “There is gravel extraction without any filtration,” he said. “Fish are dying, and we are losing the flora and fauna there.”
Former Chief Inspector at the Independent Commission for Mines and Mineral, Fatmir Gerguri, agreed with Aleksic about the state of affairs at the Krivareka.
“There is so much degradation of the river from Kamenica towards Ranilug due to illegal exploitation,” he said. “The situation looks irreparable.”
Gerguri added that while the extraction of gravel was unavoidable due to its regular use in construction, the process should be conducted through the proper channels and sites should be subsequently rehabilitated.
Illegal gravel extraction is a nationwide problem. According to a 2019 investigation by BIRN, a total of 1,200 hectares has been damaged by the process affecting river beds across the country, including the Lumbardhi i Pejes, the Erenik, the Desivojca, the Morava e Binqes and the Ibri.
Aleksic stated that he still has fresh memories of when the Krivareka river was teeming with life. “As a kid, I remember there were oysters,” he said. “There are no more now.”
The activist added that it is “illogical” that local inspectors are doing nothing to protect waters and ecosystems in the region of Gjilan.
Alongside gravel extraction, the Krivareka is also endangered by wastewater poured into it, as are all rivers in Kosovo. According to BIRN research, 98 percent of wastewater is not treated and ends up in Kosovo’s rivers and lakes.
Naser Korca, the Head of Public Services at the Municipality of Gjilan stated that a huge wastewater project is being built in the region, which should have a positive impact on pollution level.
“We have a 26 million euro wastewater treatment system which will be a solution for sewage problems in the region,” he said.
BIRN highlighted the success story of another wastewater treatment system constructed on the shores of Lake Badovc for a cost of two million euros.
Local residents confirmed to BIRN that many fish had previously been contaminated by sewage. However, after the installation of the wastewater system, fish and other fauna returned to the lake, demonstrating the power of well-focused investment.
Operation of hydropower plants
It is not just extracting gravel and sewage that are polluting Kosovo’s rivers. Across the country, the construction and operation of hydropower plants has impacted the lives of residents from southern to western Kosovo.
Austrian company KelKos has built and operates several hydropower plants in the Decan valley, which is part of the Bjeshket e Nemuna National Park and protected by the Law on National Parks.
Shpresa Loshaj, a renowned environmentalist who had a defamation lawsuit filed against her by Kelkos earlier this year, stated in the debate that rivers in the valley were beginning to resemble a “desert.”
“We cannot wait any longer,” she said. “Our rivers are remaining without water, especially the Zalli i Rupes where I grew up.”
Loshaj hopes that the recent change of government will improve the situation, following a meeting with new environment minister Liburn Aliu. “We were promised that this will be their key issue and that KELKOS’ licenses will be withdrawn,” she said.
The activist also drew attention to the protection of the environment in the nearby Rugova valley, and the proliferation of holiday homes and villas being built in the region. She pointed out that the boom in construction was short-sighted, stating that building too many villas will prevent the very tourism it is aiming to generate.
Fatos Lajci of the Environmentally Responsible Action Group NGO, ERA, concurred with Loshaj, stating that local and central governments were often contradictory in their aims. “Developing tourism and destroying nature cannot go together,” he said.
Lajci also pointed to statements by central institutions claiming to prioritise agriculture being contrary to decisions to allow rivers to be piped for use in hydropower. “How can agriculture work when you have no water?” he asked rhetorically.
This series of BIRN debates is supported by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).
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