Prespes Lakes protection group seeks top distinction

The Society for the Protection of Prespa (SPP) has its eye on the world?s biggest environmental award after a 20-year effort to rehabilitate the wet meadows of Little Prespa, one of the lakes that makes up the Prespes region in northern Greece, which is also home to a number of rare and endangered birds.

The Thiess International Riverprize is awarded each year by the International River Foundation to organizations for the restoration and sustainable management of the world?s rivers, lakes and wetlands.

SPP has helped improve the quality of the Little Prespa wet meadows, which flood every spring and provide food and nesting areas for birds such as the Dalmatian pelican and the pygmy cormorant. Also vying for the award this year are projects concerning the Willamette and Nushagak rivers in the United States and the Okavango River on the border between Angola, Namibia and Botswana. The winner will be announced on October 9 in Melbourne, Australia. The Little Prespa project made it into the list of the first 10 runners-up during the first round of assessments and joined the top four in the second round, where it is also the only European project in the finals.

The Society for the Protection of Prespa was founded in 1999 and this is the first time that it is competing for such a lofty award, but whether it wins or not, SPP has already done more than enough to distinguish itself and its work. The Little Prespa rehabilitation program is SPP?s main project and was funded by two European Union programs, as well as Greek and foreign foundations, in order to ensure the protection of rare bird species. Over the course of the project, it has also helped bring together environmental groups, local authorities, fishermen, the government and other organizations in what is for Greece a rare example of synergy and cooperation for a single goal.

According to the society?s communications director, Marianna Vlasi, the management of the vegetation in and around the lake and sustaining its water level were the main points of the broad collaboration. In its first few years, and given the sorry state of Little Prespa, the project was mainly focused on clearing away dead reeds and introducing buffalo which grazed on the underbrush, helping the wet meadows begin to grow again. The next step was to improve the sluice, or water gate, between Big and Little Prespa, while a scientific team was formed to monitor the water level and to observe when birds came to nest or feed, as well as to gauge the success of the new wet meadows in attracting more and new birds. One sign of the project?s success is the fact that since 1991, the number of Dalmatian pelicans has grown from 300-400 pairs to 1,400, making Prespa the biggest colony in the world.

According to Vlasi, the environmental benefits are also accompanied by significant social ones, as the project has helped the area?s farmers and fishermen too.

Greece, meanwhile, has laid itself open to criticism over the cross-border Prespes Park, as for 30 months it has been holding up progress with the ratification of an agreement signed between Greece, Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia for a joint collaboration to promote sustainable development and tourism in the wetland area, even though the project was initially Greece?s idea.

The agreement was ratified last July by the government in FYROM, while in Greece the draft law for the project has been extensively discussed at the Environment Ministry but has yet to be presented to Parliament to be rubber-stamped.

The Society for the Protection of Prespa has called on the Greek government to honor its commitment as it believes that collaboration between the three countries that share the wetlands is ?the only way toward the effective protection of the natural habitat and the economic development of the region.?

On a more positive note, the Conference of the Contracting Parties to the Ramsar Convention, which was held in Bucharest in August, bestowed an award on acclaimed Swiss biologist Luc Hoffmann — one of the founding fathers of Ramsar — and Greek architect Thymio Papayannis, both of whom are leading members of WWF Greece, for their contribution to wetland conservation.

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