Close in resources, divided in ways: water quality in Tirana and Podgorica

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times March 1, 2020 22:00

Close in resources, divided in ways: water quality in Tirana and Podgorica

Albania’s abundant water resources are in stark contrast to the sparse efforts being made to manage and care for them, be it on an environmental and aesthetic level, or on the purely practical citizen needs that should be met under the assumption that access to clean water in the 21st century is a human right.

Blessed with a 476-kilometer-long shoreline, a coastal area that equals 25 percent of the national territory, a mean annual rivers’ discharge that corresponds to one of the highest specific discharges in Europe, and home to two of the biggest lakes in Southern Europe, one could have guessed that, by now, Albanians would have gotten their way around getting the most out of what nature has offered them. On the contrary, as far back as 2003, in one of the earliest World Bank assessments, the environment was described as severely polluted, water supply as intermittent, water quality as compromised by inadequate treatment, and water losses excessive, surpassing water production by 50 percent in all cities.

In 2020, most Albanians will tell you the water situation has stalled, if not worsened. Objectively, it is probably better in the capital, Tirana, than over a decade ago, when water was provided only 2-3 hours per day, not a single wastewater treatment plant existed in the country and the poorest segment of the population was hit the hardest, but its current quality and supply definitely don’t justify the continuous price hikes in water bills, while claims of “rehabilitation” often succumb under environmental concerns over polluted riverbanks and creaks that pass through the entire city and its outskirts and culminate with the capital’s poster-child of water mismanagement: the Lana steam, once clean and now so heavily polluted fish cannot live there. Citizen perceptions are further clouded, forced as they are to plan their day around water availability hours, or tempted to drive up to Dajt Mountain to fill five-liter bottles of fresh water due to heavy distrust towards tap water.

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Tirana citizens filling up five liter water bottles from Mt. Dajti natural sources on December 2019

In 2020, Albania’s capital is still not the prime example of urban areas having more and better access to quality water, while all population segments are equally prone to supply problems and health risks.

Aleksander Lulo, a 21-year-old physiotherapy student living in Tirana, likes to spend his weekends in nature, camping. One of his favorite locations is Shkalla e Tujanit (or Tujan’s Staircase), approximately nine kilometers away from the capital center, closer to the mountains than the pollution. The official Tirana Municipality webpage features Shkalla e Tujanit as a beautiful gorge, but Lulo knows its environment and habitat have deteriorated from the lime-processing machines operating there, the man-made erosion and the plastic waste that follows the river flow through capital neighborhoods, as it divides and then meets the Tirana River. And if seeing one of his favorite spots become part of an environmentally contaminated network by the year isn’t enough, Lulo goes home to find he can’t shower for school next morning, because he just missed the water and now there’s just dribble coming from the shower.

Lime processing plant machines operating in Tujon's Staircase and one of the Ishem River tributaries.

Lime processing plant machines operating in Tujon's Staircase and one of the Ishem River tributaries.

 

Alice Taylor, a journalist and British expat living close to Lulo, in Tirana’s most exclusive and expensive Bllok area, has to daily choose between washing her hands or flushing the toilet, because during those short hours of supply, water is almost always being used for something else more important, such as her new-born daughter’s needs.

Although the Law on the Integrated Management of Water Resources has been approved, the legal framework itself is frail, with about 2/3 of the 25 bylaws necessary to make the law function still missing. Fresh water expert near the Institute for Natural Conservation and PhD holder Emirjeta Adhami told Tirana Times those bylaws should have been approved since 2014. In part, this is caused by lack of coordination between local and central government on the criteria of using and exploiting water resources.

“According to the law on managing water resources, it is necessary to establish the management plan of the river basin, which is the Bible of water resource management. If this is missing, it means that nothing is being done to manage them. Water resources are not just the waters flowing in the rivers, or staying in lakes and reservoirs, but also exploited and even polluted water resources. It is for this that all actors and stakeholders that use, exploit or even pollute these resources should come together in frame of the management plan of the river basin,” Adhami argued.

Tirana sits on the river basins of Ishem and Erzeni. The Ishem catchment and its aquifer are extensively exploited to supply Tirana with drinking water, although chemical analyses made as early as the 90s showed high values of harmful parameters, proof of the urban and industrial capital water dumped in it. A decade later, a 2005 study published in Environment International again suggested Ishem and its tributaries are seriously polluted, with parameters exceeding EU legal limits. The current situation is still critical, although slightly improved. Adhami said that in addition to the harm caused to water quality, the capital’s urban, uncontrolled extension has led to limited supply, as the increased number of citizens requires an increase of supply in usable water. The human, agricultural, industrial, energetic and tourism needs these water resources should be meeting are thus compromised by untreated discharge and weak legal frameworks to match the capital’s growing population from the start.

Almost similar is the situation with the Bovilla Reservoir – a tributary of the Ishem and Tirana’s main water supplier. Taking up a surface of 4.6 square kilometers and supplying almost 60 percent of the capital’s population, the lake still risks threatening pollution from wastewater, surrounding villages’ urban waste and man-caused erosion.

A worker turns his back to the camera as an excavator works in the distance on the way to Tirana's main drinking water supplier - the Bovilla Reservoir.

A worker turns his back to the camera as an excavator works in the distance on the way to Tirana's main drinking water supplier - the Bovilla Reservoir.

And really, it doesn’t take a scientist, but only a car ride on the way to the reservoir to grasp the eminent danger coming from the severely polluted villages in the area and from the excavators working restlessly under a big, yellow sign justifying man’s greed for exploitation.

Sign notifying construction for a water supplier will begin in the Bovilla area within two weeks.

Sign notifying construction for a water supplier will begin in the Bovilla area within two weeks.

Bovilla’s seemingly clean and peaceful   landscape has been contested time and   time again by scientists who argue that   better investment on the lake could   improve the plant’s water cleaning   capacities. On her side, Adhami argued   that proper investment on the capital’s   main reservoir could also improve its   water filtering capacities, which often fail   to clean sediments at a short time   during   rainy season, leading to a total   shutdown   to the population’s supply until   they can   recover their capacities.

The Selita Lake, second biggest supplier after Bovilla, is famed for nurturing much higher quality of water but in reality no part of the capital is solely supplied by either of the lakes, as water is gathered into one deposit and then distributed from there through an old and highly amortized to everyone’s knowledge network. So, Adhami explained, even if the Bovilla Reservoir is undergoing significant changes, as the government claims, and the water parameters are according to requirements, it is still necessary for people to know the parameters of tap water, after it makes its way through Tirana’s network.

Scientists are not the only ones raising red flags, however. Permanently distrustful of water quality, a number of expats and journalists have done and shared with Taylor independent water quality tests, which have turned positive for a number of residue metals and other toxic substances that can seriously threaten people’s health. One of the first – if not the first – class lawsuits has been filed by lawyer Dorian Metlija against the Tirana municipality, which it blames for charging citizens a service it doesn’t provide – clean water. And indeed, the people one meets in Mount Dajti’s numerous fresh water sources will testify to that – “tap water isn’t drinkable, only for cleaning and sometimes cooking” is the mantra.

Line of cars waiting to fill up drinkable water on Mount Dajt.

Line of cars waiting to fill up drinkable water on Mount Dajt.

Actually, the distrust towards the capital’s water network quality has been so big and its shortages so many, Tirana can be called the ‘city of deposits,’ judging from its horizon line adorned by water deposits lazily resting and saving water for times of draught.

Deposits, being a huge source of contaminated water and thus a risk themselves, will ultimately disappear only when the capital is granted 24/7 access to water; however, that day still remains a distant dream for the majority of people.

In response to the known feeling of collective impatience, which only grew bigger when water shortages carried on even after last summer although the time announced for ‘network repairing’ by officials ended, the Tirana municipality has denied shortages and recently taken up the task of removing deposits without first fixing the water distribution network – a move which to this day has left the biggest part of Tirana literally dry.

Taylor, who has extensively written on the topic as a journalist, thinks otherwise. She says the municipality will do everything, from denying the serious water supply shortages to taking people’s deposits away and hiking prices without any justification before it fixes the network and provides the entire capital with qualitative, uninterrupted water supply.

A removed deposit is left outside a building in central Blloku area as per municipality orders, although public water supply is not constant.

A removed deposit is left outside a building in central Blloku area as per municipality orders, although public water supply is not constant.

Adhami, looking at the issue from a more holistic point of view, said she does not blame the current municipality for having a weak system to face the growing challenges of fixing Tirana’s water situation once and for all, instead arguing that all relevant actors exploiting and polluting waters should come together and offer a solution, as well as give more space to scholars and scientists to research and offer ideas, Tirana Times, however, had a similar experience asking for an explanatory comment from the municipality – silence, instead of a transparent overview of some of the projects that one simple Google search shows are being funded to support the country’s water supply and sewage sector. This EU grants have exceeded 110 million euros in the last decade, but have not met population needs effectively, according to a European Commission 2016 report.

As of February 2020, citizens can be certain only of one thing: their deposits, albeit dirty, are being taken away without a proper network to supply the capital with water – even with bad water – and without an intention to lower water prices or offer explanations.

 

If first impressions account for anything, then they serve neighboring Montenegro’s capital Podgorica a great big deal in making it seem more in charge of its similarly abundant fresh water sources.

A single look of the Moraca River, as it flows clear, blue and unhindered through the capital and deservingly appears as its symbol in many city flags and emblems, is the first good impression. Whereas Tirana is big and crowded, with the small Lana stream grabbing attention for often smelling like sewage water and transporting garbage, Podgorica is the quiet, smaller capital with majestic Moraca passing through so clean and clear it makes you want to jump right in. And for those that may have some doubts, locals say you can, and that they do it themselves throughout the entire summer season. Of course, unable to cheat on the fate of nature coexisting with humans, plastic bags and bottles, as well as other human waste, can be found on its banks as well, but one has to look closely with a very critical eyes to see them, and their existence seems mainly harmless next to the river’s crystal clear waters. Whereas a Tirana citizen has to travel at least ten kilometers from the city center to reach that kind of water quality and clarity for recreational purposes, Moraca is the city center, a reference point both for tourists and locals and a worthy symbol for a capital.

Moraca river flowing through Podgorica.

Moraca river flowing through Podgorica.

Second comes the Podgorica coffee experience. Someone having to buy bottled water their entire lives out of fear of what comes out of the house tap cannot trust the tap water of cafes and bars, so it is an unwritten rule for Albanian waiters not to serve free tap water with customers’ coffee. When, and if, someone does, they’d have to go through a mandatory small-talk with the customer, who will almost always ask whether it’s tap, and whether it’s consumable and safe, and in the end probably still order bottled water. Imagine one’s confused inclination to use the same tactic in Podgorica, where coffee always comes accompanied with a fresh glass of water.

“I can bring a bottle, but it’s really unnecessary. We drink this water every day, it’s safe,” a number of servers confirmed upon demand. Asked later again, Montenegrin journalist Ivan Chadjenovic confirmed that tap water supply in the capital matches Moraca River’s seeming excellent quality and that Podgorica citizens would have the easiest of times gathering to protest if they were made to buy water together with their coffee.

“What can be a problem in Podgorica is its old supply network,” he said, but even that mainly affects the small and old part of the city and is scheduled for renewal, according to municipality officials. As for the rest of the capital, it enjoys the country’s most efficient network for its status and importance.

It is worth mentioning that Podgorica waters and their supply enjoy some easing factors when compared to Tirana, and even those don’t really make the situation as ideal as it seems.

As of per the last official 2011 census, Podgorica was home to approximately 186,000 people, as opposed to Tirana’s then-population of 418,495 people. Evidently, demand for water in Tirana is much higher while the city’s unplanned urban extension over the last decade has also not eased the situation for the municipality. The Podgorica Municipality, on the other hand, has an area of 108 square kilometers, while its urbanized area is in reality much smaller. This relatively favorable territory size falls in an area considered rich with water sources. Even those living in the suburbs, Chadjenovic noted when he spoke to Tirana Times, and still don’t benefit from the modern network, get supplied from underground wells – not supplying the highest quality of water, but still good enough to be consumed straight from the wells, “as was the way of their ancestors.” Truly, the richness in bodies of water is a major feature of Podgorica, while its high annual rainfall of 1,659 mm by far makes it the wettest capital of Europe and enables the provision of a more stable water supply.

The heavy rainfalls that characterize the Montenegrin capital do lead to sporadic problems with water quality according to both Chadjenovic and Mirko Ivanovic, a Podgorica citizen who also used to water at a capital-based international company producing water filters and also leading water quality research whose name he preferred not to mention.

“When we get consecutive days of heavy rainfall, we might experience reduced water quality, that’s true. I don’t know if it comes because of old filters in the cleaning plants, but scientists say that water is polluted and indeed it can cause some health issues to vulnerable people. But that situation does not last long, or become too alarming,” Ivanovic said from the driver’s seat, as he took us to see Podgorica’s main water supplying spring Mareza, sitting in the Shkoder (or Skadar, in Montenegrin) Lake basin, shared between Albania and Montenegro.

Mareza is known among Montenegrins as the source of premium quality drinkable water that Podgorica is famed for. The road to Mareza, unlike that to Tirana’s Bovilla, looks more like a forgotten country road rather than a construction site, while the area used to treat and then provide water is guarded by heavy metal doors and a guard who does not allow citizens inside, or even official pictures – yet another contrast pointing to differing management approaches between the countries. The spring empties into the above-mentioned Moraca River, and continues its relatively clean flow all the way to Skadar Lake.

Researchers have spoken of potential risks that could affect the source’s water quality, while Montenegro itself is prone to future climate change expected to reduce the yield of water sources. Even presently, Ivanovic said, the final tap water quality parameters are not where they ideally should be and that is hard research data citizens were made aware of when he tried to sell his company’s water filters.

The entrance inside the part of the Mareza spring that supplies water is not accessible to citizens, nor pictures are allowed.

The entrance inside the part of the Mareza spring that supplies water is not accessible to citizens, nor pictures are allowed.

“I also used those filters myself and I did notice that over time, or after heavy rainfall, the parameters changed and worsened, but it is not the kind of change that can lead people to change their water system. Perceptions are everything and, to us, Podgorica water is perfectly fine. What’s more important, those sediments have little to do with Mareza and more to do with old network tubes and weak filtering – things we are waiting the government to fix,” Ivanovic says.

So far, Podgorica has not experienced any major water-quality-related plague or sickness that Chadjenovic can recall as a journalist; those that might have been alleged to be so, he calls ‘conspiracy theory’ and prefers not to talk about. The only thing, he says, that dissatisfies citizens regarding water are the constant price hikes, justified by officials as a result ongoing economic crisis, but which various NGO players have argued comes from over-employment inside the ruling-party-owned capital water company.

“The thing is you can never know when you’re not on the inside. Maybe I speak as the Devil’s advocate because of contact I had with research teams that studied water quality time and time again. I can’t objectively argue that Montenegro, especially Podgorica, has the problems that other capitals may have. But I also see place for improvement and place for independent companies to run independent tests and prepare for future challenges,” Ivanovic, who also did not want to appear in front of the camera, said.

On its part, the Montenegro government has given many more promises than changed pipes, saying it’s implementing numerous projects for sustainable water resources management and provision of high-quality water throughout the country and regardless of the area’s existing richness in bodies of water. Last year during a public appearance, Deputy Prime Minister Milutin Simovic said it is taking steps through various international-backed projects and the state’s own funds to face its vulnerability to pollution and extreme climate change. That could be necessary, also according to a 2015 Danube Water Program assessment which said that prevailing pollutants in the water are mainly the result of wastewater from point sources and that there are only four municipal wastewater treatment plants for the whole country. With activists added to the equation especially during 2019, urging an end to the government’s plans for small hydro-power plant construction due to their impacts on rivers and water supplies, the Montenegrin government and all local branches still have things to improve and, according to the opinion of some actors, things to be held accountable for.

And yet, the vibe one gets from chit-chatting with people in Podgorica and asking them about their opinion on the municipality’s water supply capabilities is nowhere near as hostile as in Tirana. They are either generally content or neutral on the capital’s water supply, with only those who are very informed on the threats posed to the country’s water sources justly turning more critical. Even them, however, laugh absentmindedly when asked whether they are supplied with water the entire day, or whether they ever had to use deposits to save up some water.

In the 21st century, one can conclude, Albania is still working to fix past problems, while Montenegro is preparing, with its own problems and weaknesses, to face the problems that are to come.


Video and photo credits: Jurgen Jacaj

Reported by: Sidonja Manushi & Greta Shima

Project Coordinator: Jerina Zaloshnja

 

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times March 1, 2020 22:00