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Shyqyri Kahari once made a living sailing the world – until marriage in 1979 brought him home to the Montenegrin town of Ulcinj and a job on a triangular-shaped island called Ada Bojana.
Located at the border between Montenegro and Albania, Ada Bojana is carved out on two sides by the river Bojana, while the third is blessed with a 2.9-kilometre sandy beach lapped by the Adriatic Sea.
With strong winds and a laid-back vibe, it is popular with kitesurfers, nudists, Belgrade twentysomethings and a growing number of foreign tourists. But it is also shrinking.
“When I started working, my little house, from which I rented out beach furniture, was 85 metres from the sea,” Kahari, a 76-year-old pensioner, recalled. “But today, it’s gone. It would be under water. The beach is 85 metres shorter.”
And it’s not only Kahari’s old house.
“The popular restaurant ‘Disko’ on Ada used to be about 100 metres from the sea, and today it is literally in the sea,” said veteran tourist guide and Ulcinj publicist Ismet Karamanaga.
“We should be alarmed by all of this,” he said. “I don’t know whether future generations will live to see the beach on Ada.”
Shyqyri Kahari. Photo: Mustafa Canka
Schoolchildren in the former Yugoslav republic grow up learning that Montenegro is 13,812 square km in size, bigger than Lebanon or Cyprus, but slightly smaller than the Bahamas. But this land of soaring mountains, bays and beaches is getting smaller by the day.
Albania no better
Out of 427 kmof Albanian coastline, one third faces erosion, according to the Albanian Ministry of Tourism and Environmental Protection.
Speaking in November last year, Minister Blendi Klosi said that the sea was reclaiming on average some 20 metres of beachevery year, while near the border with Montenegro as many as 400 metres of shoreline had disappeared over a 15-year period.
“The sea is scraping away the shore,” Sherif Lushaj, an environmental expert at Tirana’s Polis University, told Albanian Top Channel TV. “This is nature’s revenge against man for destroying it.”
Klosi said the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, expected Albania, Montenegro and Croatia to come up with a joint project to protect the coastline.
Erosion by the sea, the damming of rivers and rampant construction have combined to create a perfect storm threatening Montenegro’s beaches. At greatest risk are those where developers have dammed or diverted mountain streams that feed the coastline with sand and gravel.
According to the findings of an investigation by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, and the Centre for Investigative Journalism of Montenegro, CIN-CG, the measures taken by the state to halt the process have been sporadic and, so far, insufficient.
Ada Bojana’s disappearing act is visible to the naked eye.
“Satellite images confirm that over about thirty years the beach on Ada has been reduced by about 80 metres, while on the eastern part of the island it practically doesn’t exist anymore,” said Ulcinj ecologist Dzelal Hodzic, executive director of the environmental NGO Green Step.
“The influence of strong southern waves, sea currents, reduced flows of sediment and water, the removal of sand and the lack of regard shown by the responsible institutions – all theseare influencing the accelerated disappearance of one of the most beautiful beaches on our coastline,” Hodzic told BIRN/CIN CG.
Fatmir Gjeka, director of the Ulcinj tourist office, said: “For all of us in Montenegro, and especially in the Ulcinj municipality, with its greatest resource being just these sandy beaches, this should serve as an alarm bell. We must focus on the causes in order to stop these processes.”
The threat to Ada Bojana represents a threat too to a unique ecosystem in the wider area around the mouth of the Bojana River.
Flood fears every year
About 400,000 people, on both sides of the border, live in fear of flooding in the Bojana delta region. Some years, the floods come twice, inflicting huge damage on property and farmland.
The floods cover thousands of hectares of arable land south of Skadar in northern Albania, and one part of the Ulcinj municipality in Montenegro.
“Apart from the problem of beach erosion, last year’s case of closing the mouth of Bojana and the sea, as well as frequent floods in this area, are an indicator that this basin is subjected toinadequate and arbitrary management, with the total lack of an integratedapproach, base studies and data,” said Marojevic.
“It seems that the management’s focus is more on damage repair, not good planning, which ultimately costs much more.”
The 2020 Strategic Development Plan of the Ulcinj Municipality envisages regulation of the riverbed and erecting of levees in order to prevent floods and degradation of the Bojana delta.
The island and an adjacent beach, the 12-km Great Beach that runs to Ulcinj town, are home to some 500 plant species, 23 of which are protected under national legislation.
Of some 250 different types of bird, most are protected and 57 feature in the European Union’s Birds Directive, which defines standards of protection and preservation of wild birds and their habitats throughout Europe.
Over 100 different species of fish are present in the area and the river delta represents one of the last areas of the Mediterranean with psammophyte vegetation characteristic of dry, sandy habitats.
The Albanian side of the river is included in the 1971 Ramsar List, an international convention on the protection of wetlands. The river itself is the second biggest tributary to the Adriatic in terms of discharged water, after the Po in Italy.
It is said that Ada Bojana was born in the mid-19th century when a ship called the Merito, owned Antun Alegreti of Trogir and steered by Captain Naporeli, sank between two small islands, blocking deposits flowing from the river into the sea and, by around 1882, creating one larger island of about 515 hectares.
Nature struck a balance between the erosive forces of the sea and the flow of deposits from the Bojana River.
That balance, however, was first disrupted by the construction of a number of dams and hydropower plants on the main tributary of the Bojana, the river Drim in Albania during the 1960s, 1970s and the early 2010s.
Experts estimate the flow of deposits to the sea has been cut by about 30 per cent, and sand has been excavated indiscriminately. The capacity of the Bojana’s riverbed is now 2.5 times less than three decades ago, its flow disrupted by dumped waste and the construction of some 600 holiday homes along the Montenegrin side.
“By creating large accumulations, the natural regime of the riverDrim has been completely altered,” Belgrade-based Professor Sava Petkovic told the Montenegrin daily Vijesti in October last year. “Inherently, the regime of depositing has changed.”
In 2009, the renowned German biologist Martin Schneider-Jacoby, who died in 2012, also told Vijesti: “It can be realistically expected that, should this continue and no action is taken, in 50 to 60 years, Ada will be gone. Optimists will say this will happen in 100 years, but that’s tomorrow.”
Need for systematic, coordinated response
Photo: Ada Bojana in 2007 (top) versus 2019. Source: Google Earth © 2019 DigitalGlobe
For years, however, the response of the state has been to do nothing, despite the threat to a tourism industry that directly accounts for 11 per cent of Montenegro’s economic output and roughly 25 per cent indirectly.
The state-run body in charge of managing Montenegro’s beaches, Public Company for Management of Sea Assets of Montenegro, warned in July 2018that the shrinking and disappearance of beaches may have “endless negative effects on the development of tourism.”
But, it said in a press release, “the fight against beach erosion has up till now… reflected a strategy of ‘do nothing.’”
In 2015, Montenegro’s National Strategy of Integrated Coastal Area Management said that it was not possible to ascertain how fast the beaches were eroding “due to a lack of systematic monitoring.”
Predrag Jelusic, the director of the Public Company for Management of Sea Assets, confirmed that in some parts of Ada Bojana the beach had shrunk by “up to 80 metres”.
“A considerable loss of beach area at Ada Bojana is ongoing,” Jelusic told a meeting of the Tourism, Agriculture, Ecology and Spatial Planning Board of the Montenegrin parliament in December last year.
“This significant shortage of bathing area… may certainly be detrimental” to efforts to improve the tourist offering of Ada Bojana, he said.
Environmental groups say the lack of action amounts to grave negligence.
“The state should approach the protection of beaches systematically, because it is undisputable that tourism holds great potential for us and I guess no rational person can think that tourism without beaches and the beauty disappearing before our eyes is possible,” said Hodzic.
Jelena Marojevic, program coordinator at the environmental NGO Green Home, said the root of the problem was in the lack of an integrated approach to water management in the Drim basin.
Civil society in both Montenegro and Albania “have tried on several occasions to alert both the authorities… and the general and scientific public by continuously organising camps and educational events over the past five years,” Marojevic told BIRN/CIN-CG.
Petkovic, speaking to Vijesti, called for “large-scale” efforts to clean the Bojana riverbed, “because only the increase of river deposit feeding to the sea can partially halt the process of beach erosion on the Ulcinj Riviera.”
Photo: Mustafa Canka
The effects of decades of neglect were thrown into stark relief in August 2017 when the flow of water along the right branch of the river Bojana slowed so much that the river trickled to a halt before it could reach the sea and the island of Ada Bojana temporarily became a peninsula.
Work began in mid-2018 to pump out surplus material and deepen the riverbed and was due to run until the end of the year, but was continuing as of this month.
The intervention has increased the amount of discharge from the right branch from three per cent to 10 per cent of the river’s total outflow into the Adriatic. It should be twice this level, according to an agreement between the governments of Montenegro and Albania signed last year.
About 5,000 cubic metres of deposit extracted from the closed mouth was used as so-called ‘beach nourishment’ for Ada and the Great Beach.
Milutin Simovic, Montenegro’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, said in July that the government was taking “an active stand, a stand that means the state is acting prudently through projects in coordination with the local self-government.”
Simovic said that both Montenegro and Albania would work on water quality, flood protection and regulation and maintenance of the watercourse, “with special focus on the river Bojana.”
Hodzic, the Ulcinj ecologist, said coordination between the two countries would be essential to protecting the ecosystem.
“Let us hope that after decades of neglect this will be a turning point in the attitude towards the unique beauty of the river Bojana delta,” he said, and urged Montenegro to make use of EU funds available to the country as a candidate for accession to the bloc.
“If Spain managed to revive its natural beaches in more than 400 locations, hopefully Montenegro can renew its own with the support of the EU.”
Some want the countries to go further.
In mid-2008, Dr Stephan Doempke, a German expert, called in a World Bank-financed study for the creation of a Regional Park of the River Bojana Delta, “a unique protected region with complex zoning and administration on the local level.”
Describing the delta as the most important natural swamp in the eastern Mediterranean, Doempke warned that, “if this area is not protected, this will seriously compromise the constitutional status of Montenegro and its international reputation as a tourism-oriented country and ecological state.”
Nothing ever came of it, but calls for such protection continue.
“This cannot be left at the level of meetings and signed memorandums of understanding and cooperation,” said Karamanaga.
“We need to take specific and certain steps towards forming one Euro-region. We must do everything to preserve our beaches, without which there is no tourism.”