Saving Lake Prespa: Restoring a freshwater ecosystem while strengthening the local economy
For over five decades now, Kole Vasilevski, 68, has been casting his nets in the waters of one of our planet’s most ancient lakes, Lake Prespa. But recent years have seen a dramatic decline in the quality of the water and the biodiversity of the local ecosystem, threatening the livelihood of local fishermen like Kole.
“There have been less and less fish in the lake for some years now,” he says. “And I’ve struggled to make a living. Fishing is my only income, but it used to be enough to support my family. For the past few years I’ve been barely getting by.”
Lake Prespa is a global biodiversity hotspot in the Balkans. Over 2,000 species of birds, fish and mammals, many of them unique to the Prespa region, depend on this beautiful but fragile habitat.
The ancient lake has withstood centuries of natural pressures, but human pressures in recent decades have taken their toll on the lake’s ecosystem. Experts investigating these problems singled out unsustainable farming practices as a major cause of pollution. Over 70% of the local population work in agriculture, mostly in apple cultivation. But while their livelihoods ultimately depend on the health of the lake, many farmers unknowingly caused huge damage to the ecosystem by using excessive amounts of hazardous pesticides and fertilizers, wasting irrigation water and dumping waste directly into the lake, including thousands of tons of rotting apples. Combined with the effects of erosion and the lack of sustainable solutions for solid waste and sewage, these practices over the years have led to a severe deterioration in the health of the lake, posing a threat to the survival of fish and even the disappearance of some species.
“We all knew there were problems with the quality of the water,” says Kole. “But most of the farmers here just didn’t realise the damage they were doing.” Since 2002, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the Global Environmental Facility and the United Nations Development Programme have worked in partnership with national and local authorities to restore the health of this valuable but vulnerable ecosystem. The main aim has been to protect biodiversity while at the same time ensuring that the region’s farmers can earn a decent living. Building on a solid foundation of monitoring, assessment and planning, the programme has targeted the region’s main environmental challenges: building sewage treatment and wastewater collection facilities; promoting sustainable agricultural techniques; making irrigation systems more efficient; replanting forests to combat erosion; and improving the protection of at-risk habitats. “It’s taken 15 years and 15 million dollars to make this happen but finally, after decades of decline, Lake Prespa has been restored to health,” said UNDP Resident Representative Louisa Vinton.
For Kole, the results of the restoration programme are tangible. “Two years ago I was on the verge of just giving up,” he says. “But suddenly the fish are back! Not only the quantity but the quality of the fish has improved. Customers are coming back and the word is going around that I catch the best fish in the lake again.” Kole’s story is told in a beautiful short film “Lake of Apples”, produced to showcase the results of the restoration programme. “Lake of Apples” has a happy end, showing that nature and neighborhoods can thrive together. While Prespa Lake is a unique habitat, the challenges it faces are common to freshwater ecosystems across the globe. “Our documentary is intended not just to showcase a single success story,” explained Vinton. “UNDP aims now to apply the lessons learned here to other at-risk contexts.”
- More than 80% of local farmers have adopted agro-ecological practices
- The use of water for irrigation has fallen by nearly 60%
- Pesticide use is down by 30%
- New sewage treatment plants prevent harmful run-off
- Thousands of tons of waste that used to be dumped in the lake are now being transformed into high-quality compost
- Water quality has measurably improved and indigenous fish species have recovered