A new residential development planned close to Lake Badovc in Prishtina has found itself at the heart of a passionate debate between the public, the developers and Kosovo’s authorities.
A new residential development set to be built on the banks of Lake Badovc, an artificial lake and water resource a few kilometers outside Prishtina, has caused a clash between a newly formed protest group, Kosovo’s institutions and a design company registered in London and set up by members of Kosovo’s diaspora.
A team of activists and experts have launched a Facebook campaign drumming up support against the construction of the neighborhood, named ‘Lakeside Gardens.’ Badovc is one of Kosovo’s primary sources of drinking water, and activists believe that turning the lake’s surroundings into a residential area risks bringing a myriad of contaminants and environmental threats too close for comfort.
Baton Begolli is an advisor to the Inter-ministerial Water Council and a member of the campaign group. “We’re not saying don’t build houses anywhere, just not so close to strategic resources that we are reliant upon,” he tells Prishtina Insight.
In December, the Municipality of Prishtina confirmed that the conditions necessary under Kosovo law for construction to begin at the site are in place, although the final project design will not be complete for another few months.
An environmental impact assessment that will determine whether or not construction would cause harm to the surrounding environment is not expected to be finalized for another few weeks. Without this, neither the permit granting environmental consent nor allowing construction can be issued by the Municipality of Prishtina.
The company behind the design of the neighborhood, 4M, is adamant that the construction is lawful. The company says it prides itself on its innovative and sustainable development, and believes that the project is the gateway to a wave of positive and environmentally conscious developments near Badovc and, in the future, across the whole country.
“We want this to be an example of how sustainable design can work in synergy with nature, and not against it,” says Perparim Rama, CEO of the 4M Group. “There are multiple benefits the project can bring if we dare to dream, if we analyze the proposals and ideas in depth rather than scaring people into thinking we are trying to poison the water.”
The activists, though, are not interested in the company’s environmental credentials. “For us, it doesn’t matter how green the project may be, it is against the law,” says Ardian Nrecaj, the organizer of the campaign against Lakeside Gardens. “I don’t care if it is Greenpeace that are building it. He [Rama] can tell us all about how beautiful his cement looks, but our cause has nothing to do with him – we want to know from the ministry and the municipality who started this and who is going to stop it.”
Kosovo has a complicated history of illegal construction of buildings and neighborhoods following the war. With the damage that unlawful development has caused to the country’s infrastructure over the last 20 years, both the design company and activists agree that it comes as no surprise that there is a lack of trust in Kosovo’s institutions when it approves development projects.
Roots of the dispute
4M began plans to construct 17 villas on 2.6 hectares of land after making a deal with the owner of the land, Rrahman Hajredini, in 2017. The plans also include an access road to the site.
Between 2017 and now, the company tried twice to apply to the Municipality of Prishtina to approve that the conditions necessary for the construction to begin are in place, but were knocked back due to potential restrictions on construction in the area.
Kosovo’s Strategic Plan for the Urban Development of Prishtina 2004-2020, which envisages the development of Prishtina’s living spaces to extend from the city all the way out to Lake Badovc, designates Hajredini’s land as suitable for urban residential construction. 4M states that this plan proves that its project is lawful.
However, an administrative instruction from 2017 sets out a 500 meter “protection zone” that restricts any construction near Kosovo’s reservoirs “if it endangers the safety of the water quality at the source.” Additionally, a 2013 government decision sets out Lake Badovc as a zone protected from construction, with a similar 200 meter protection zone that prohibits construction “that could endanger the quality of the water.”
MPs from across the political spectrum have come out against the construction of Lakeside Gardens, with Vetevendosje MP Fitore Pacolli, Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, MP Agim Gashi, and Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, MP Eliza Hoxha citing the 2013 decision as evidence of the unlawful nature of the construction.
According to Rama, the MESP have confirmed that neither of these regulations prohibit the continuation of the project. The MESP informed the Municipality of Prishtina in 2019 that there was no restriction to construction in this area, who then approved that conditions for construction were ready in December after 4M’s third attempt.
“We discussed this way back with the ministry, who said that key guiding element is the Strategic Plan from 2004,” said Rama, explaining that the MESP told the company that the Strategic Plan takes precedence over both the administrative instruction and government decision.
“Even the contradicting administrative instruction does not specifically say that you cannot build there, just that you cannot build anything in damaging the waters, and that’s not what we’re here to do, we’re here to protect it,” says Rama.
The land owned by Hajredini touches into a second restriction zone even closer to the water, he added, which caused some confusion during the process, but says his company made assurances that no construction will ever occur there.
Nrecaj, the founder of the campaign against Lakeside Gardens, heard about the approval of the conditions for construction in early January, and could not believe it was going ahead.
“The idea for the Facebook group was to give people a voice and a space to call for more transparency around the process,” he tells Prishtina Insight. “Things like this of such high importance to the citizens should not be done behind closed doors.”
After three days and thousands of responses from the public regarding Lakeside Gardens, the Mayor of Prishtina, Shpend Ahmeti, confirmed on Monday, January 13 that the Municipality had approved the conditions for construction on December 20, 2019. Ahmeti later refused to take part in a debate with the outgoing Minister of Environment and Spatial Planning, Fatmir Matoshi, which was organized by Nrecaj and the other activists last Thursday to clear up the issue for the public.
“He said he didn’t come because some interest groups might deviate the debate,” Nrecaj explained. “But it is the citizens, they are his interest groups. You have a duty to tell the citizens that voted for you things crucial to the lives of those citizens.”
According to Begolli, the MESP should revisit the administrative instruction and explicitly prohibit the development of neighborhoods in the vicinity of Kosovo’s reservoirs.
Nrecaj meanwhile believes that institutions’ failure to harmonize conflicting legislation only makes it easier for investors to secure construction permits. “They intentionally leave these laws to contradict each other, because it is easier to manipulate the law and for certain companies to benefit,” he says.
A threat to the environment?
The 4M Group insists that construction will be undertaken in line with Kosovo’s environmental legislation. However, campaigners against the construction take issue with what will happen to the water after construction is complete.
Begolli believes that the closer and closer inhabitants get to the water, the higher the likelihood of human error harming the lake becomes. “In all likelihood, the drinking water will be affected,” he says. “Not from the construction, per se: Let’s say for argument’s sake that the company are environmentally conscious and take care of their waste pollution and everything. In our eyes, the problem is the precedent that it creates. Where will construction stop? How much closer to a direct public health issue can you get? This isn’t something we should be gambling with.”
Begolli says that more care was taken to protect the lake when was first built in the early 1960s. “When they planned this reservoir, they resettled a village that was within the 500 meter vicinity of the water,” he says. “Half a century ago, we were more conscious about the potential impact. One would think that 50 years down the line, we would have grown smarter.”
Begolli also notes the dangerous water shortage faced in Kosovo. According to Kosovo’s Report on the State of Water, the country has an uneven and inadequate distribution of water resources in relation to demand.
In comparison to the rest of the Balkan region, Kosovo has 40 per cent less water per capita than its neighbors, while precipitation statistics from the last 90 years reveal that Kosovo will suffer four to six months of extreme drought every five years on average. The last extreme drought Kosovo experienced was in 2014.
“Lake Badovc supplies one third of Prishtina and the surrounding municipalities with drinking water,” says Begolli. “Then you hear that they are threatening a reservoir? It doesn’t take a genius to know that we shouldn’t allow it.”
Egzona Shala, a biodiversity expert that has joined the campaign against Lakeside Gardens, is frustrated that Kosovo’s wildlife has been left out of the conversation surrounding the construction. “Modification of the natural ecosystem through construction will be damaging, as we will be converting what was previously a completely natural habitat into a habitat for humans,” she says.
According to her, there are 12 endangered species, including fish, insects, amphibians, reptiles and birds, as well as one species of eagle, that have Lake Badovc as their habitat. “What is a real pity here is that these are endemic species found either only in Kosovo or the Balkan region,” she says. “The diversity of Badovc’s ecosystem is something rare in Kosovo, and that doesn’t even include the plantlife there, which we do not yet have data on.”
The impact of human construction and the increase of human life there will cause the migration of both plants and animals, Shala says, and will cause harm to the ecosystem that would take decades to repair.
The activist believes this should be the Kosovo public’s main concern, as without the protection of Kosovo’s natural resources, no one will be able to enjoy the lake. “People care about the water and they care about the memories they have made at the lake, which wouldn’t exist without the wildlife and nature there,” she says.
Shala is petitioning both the Municipality of Prishtina and the MESP to extend the special protection zone that shields Germia park from construction to cover Badovc Lake and its surroundings. “This would end any conflict over whether something can be constructed, and we believe that this is the best solution that we can take to the institutions,” she says.
A long battle ahead
4M’s CEO however, believes that the public’s refusal to entertain the possibility of developing residential areas near Badovc is misled. The debate surrounding the project has become too black and white, he says, and fails to acknowledge that increasing accessibility to the lake would in fact lead to increased protection of the lake, rather than being to its detriment.
“You can look at the development as being good or bad, or you can look at it in terms of its potential, its possibility to create a synergetic approach between human and nature,” Rama says. “We need the city, the people, to have access to natural resources in order to enhance human well being and educate them about the natural resources that we have and how to protect them.”
Rama notes that the area surrounding Badovc as well as the lake itself are currently not being maintained by the Municipality of Prishtina or the. MESP. “Whether someone wants to protect it or not, that place is being abused, and it is deteriorating. Go there and you can see to what extent people take care of it – that needs to change. By default, having inhabitants within the zone will want the area to be clean and they will protect it.”
Improving accessibility with the city would make it easier for nature lovers to make use of the lake, Rama argues, opening up the surrounding area for outdoor activities such as hiking, horse riding and canoeing. 4M would facilitate this by creating a “nature center” near the neighborhood that they believe could become a hotspot for the discussion and improvement of nature conservation around Badovc.
Rama criticized Kosovo’s public institutions for fueling the public outcry that occurred following the launch of the campaign against Lakeside Gardens by failing to understand its own laws. “We have a state that is being run by people in government that hold positions they don’t know anything about,” says Rama. “The moment that public euphoria starts, they chicken out and say ‘we shouldn’t have done that.’”
According to Rama, the attention that the project has garnered should be used to open up debate about sustainable development, rather than being used for political point-scoring. “This is not about one party or another – it’s about the city and its people, the future of the lake and how we can use it,” he says. “New things can come from this and we can break out of this vicious cycle of scaremongering and lack of understanding.”
Rama highlights that the Kosovo people have been “traumatized” by years of unregulated construction that has destroyed the country’s urban and rural infrastructure, saying it is no surprise that there is an inherent distrust of foreign urban developers. He hopes that his company will have the opportunity to lead by example and generate a culture of sustainable construction in Kosovo.
“All we can do is bring our professional experience and the best designs that technology and the law will allow, I have always been against illegal construction,” he says. “We need to engage and grow economically, and not let the country be destroyed by illegal developments helped along by people who close their eyes and pretend not to see it.”
The legal expert aiding the campaigners against Lakeside Gardens, Ali Sefaj, says that while he believes the laws regulating construction near Badovc are on the side of the activists, he hopes that no courts in Kosovo will have to be involved.
“I’ve talked to the people who have drafted these documents, and the logic of these documents is to protect the water,” Sefaj tells Prishtina Insight. “However, the idea is to use public pressure to stop this before it ends up going to the courts.”
“I think that public opinion is actually a stronger weapon than the courts here,” Sefaj continues. “At court this case could last for years, whereas public opinion wins a case in days.”
The campaigners are convinced that the development will eventually be halted. “The truth and the law is on our side, there is no question of that,” Sefaj says.