Greece, FYROM finally unite to save Lake Doirani

Lake Doirani is 75 kilometers (47 miles) north of Thessaloniki, on the border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). It forms a natural border between the two countries and for decades it was a natural resource that has now been all but milked dry by local residents on both sides of the lake. What was once a landscape of outstanding beauty, brimming with flora and fauna, is now a wasteland. Overfishing, poisoning with household and agricultural waste, including toxic herbicides, among other things, have resulted in the shoreline receding, leaving mounds of shellfish in its wake. Water birds have also started to leave the area. A few years ago, the deteriorating condition of the lake was a source of conflict, with accusations flying thick and fast on both sides. But times change. Now both residents and the authorities on both shores have realized that the lake should unite, rather than divide them. If the lake survives, then so will the local economies. With this in mind, an incentive has been given which would have seemed impossible just 10 years ago, an environmental project which, if successful, will reap huge benefits for both sides and not just from the ecological point of view. For the first time, Greece and FYROM are working together to save the lake that they share, putting aside blame for the catastrophe and looking for ways to halt it, or at least restrict the problems that are threatening Doirani with extinction. Both sides agree that Doirani, one of the most beautiful and unusual lakes in the region, is entering a crucial phase for its survival. The receding waterline and the reduction in fishing resources began about 35 years ago. The waterline has withdrawn about 500 meters, partly due to decreasing rainfall, and the mounting piles of shellfish are considered a major problem along many sections of the shore. The average depth of the lake has dropped from 10 meters to 5.5 meters, biologist Eleni Michalatou told Kathimerini. Fishing catches have dropped from 120 tons annually between 1960-1970 to 10 to 15 tons. Of the 18 species of fish, seven have disappeared, and over the last 15 years, the lake has lost a quarter of its surface. State and local authorities eventually decided to sit down and find immediate solutions in order to save the lake and its dozens of animal, bird and aquatic species that are threatened along with the lakeside settlements and their economies on both sides of the border. On Tuesday, senior officials from the respective ministries for Foreign Affairs, the Environment, Agriculture and Macedonia and Thrace, representatives of the Central Macedonian Region’s environment department, the Metallurgical and Geological Research Institute (IGME), the Prefecture of Kilkis and the Muni- cipality of Doirani, on behalf of Greece, met with their counterparts from FYROM at the Greece Center for Biotopes and Wetland (EKBY) in Thessaloniki. Also attending the meeting were experts from universities and research institutes from both countries. The organizers of the meeting hope the effort will not lose momentum. EKBY biologists told Kathimerini that the primary goal is to make a complete record of the existing situation and to formulate proposals for specific action. The lake’s ecological importance In the past, both Greece and FYROM had suggested various solutions to the problems at Lake Doirani. Greece considered channeling water into Doirani from Lake Kerkini during the winter months. Another idea was to divert water from Mt Belles to the lake, and to try and reduce water consumption in the catchment area by changing irrigation methods. In FYROM, a proposal was made to divert water from the Axios River. Very little was done either by Greece, where the lake’s water is used to irrigate about 2,200 hectares, or by FYROM, which has tourist resorts on its side of the lake. The only agreement on the water basin to date was one signed by Greece and the then Yugoslavia in 1956. Biologists and other scientists say the lake is of enormous ecological importance. At Hilia Dendra, near the lake, there is a small wood consisting of oak trees and huge plane trees, one of the rarest of its kind in Greece. One can still see the classic scene of fishermen in their little boats on Doirani, as in other parts of the north, but very few now use cormorants as they did in the past. They would trim the cormorants’ wings and use them to frighten the fish into swimming toward their nets. Doirani is believed to be a remnant of the ancient Lake Paionia. Although not one of the largest in Greece, it is unusual in that it has extensive sand dunes along its banks. Around the lake live wolves, foxes, hares, badgers and martens. Over 60 bird species have been identified. Greek experts at Tuesday’s meeting said they want to treat the system as a whole and not as two separate sections, as in the past. Funding for any programs that are implemented will come from the World Bank, the European Union and national sources. It has long been rumored, for instance, that the Grevena segment will only be a two-lane road (one in each direction).