A tale of a river returning home

United Nations Development Programme

In the Balkans, reducing flood risks and cleaning up the Sateska River supports climate resilient lives and livelihoods around Lake Ohrid

By Darko Chekerovski and Bojan Kovacevic

There is no place on Earth quite like Lake Ohrid. Straddling the rugged mountainous border between North Macedonia and Albania, this azure jewel provides life and sustenance to millions of people. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the lake is home to some 200 endemic species and some experts argue this is the most biodiverse lake on the planet.

But like many of our world’s natural treasures, Lake Ohrid – and the rivers that feed it within the Drin River Basin – face severe environmental risks. Climate change, environmental degradation and a lack of coordinated responses are destroying natural habitats and impacting the lives and livelihoods of the 1.6 million people that call the region home.

The Drin River Basin extends across North Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro. Climate change and climate variability have been increasing the frequency, intensity and impact of flooding in the basin.

Climate change impacts on water resources will have cascading effects on human health and many segments of the economy, including agriculture, energy and tourism.

With support from the Adaptation Fund, UNDP is working with national and local partners in the Western Balkans through a new project designed to integrate climate-resilient transboundary flood risk management in the Drin River basin. The project will assist the riparian countries in the implementation of an integrated climate-resilient river basin flood risk management approach in order to improve their existing capacity to manage flood risks at regional, national and local levels and to enhance resilience of vulnerable communities in the Drin River Basin to climate-induced floods.

The Sateska River

One of the project’s early success stories comes on the shores Lake Ohrid on the Sateska River.

Some 60 years ago, the Sateska was a tributary of the mighty Crn (Black) Drin River, which springs near Lake Ohrid passes through the lake and flows into the beautiful village of Struga.

"To increase the hydroelectric potential of the artificial lake and the Globocica hydropower plant, the Sateska was rerouted in 1961 to an entirely new, wider riverbed and since then has been entering Lake Ohrid directly," remembers Aleksandar Drenkovski from the nearby village of Volino.

Degredation of lake Ohrid

The new Sateska channel passes through agriculture and urban landscapes and deposits tons of sediment daily into Lake Ohrid, causing severe degradation to the lake’s delicate ecosystem. What was originally viewed as a good use of ecosystem management – moving the Sateska to increase hydro-electric potential – is now destroying the lake and hurting local communities that rely on the lake for tourism, fisheries and other industries.

”It is devastating. Survival of Lake Ohrid as we know it depends on Sateska River. In the past, due to the intensive rainfalls the river raised quickly, overflowing the banks, flooding the surrounding fields and villages, causing great damage. To solve the problem, dams were built along the river, and its riverbed was divided into two parts to reduce the pressure of the rising water,” says Kire Markoski, an elderly resident of Struga.

Approximately 14,000 cubic meters of deposited sediment from the Crn Drin riverbed was removed in the autumn of 2020.

Sateska's return

After six decades of neglect, the time has come for the Sateska to return home again.

One of the first interventions of the Drin River Basin project was a cleanup of an estimated 14,000 cubic meters of deposited sediment from the Crn Drin riverbed in the urban part of Struga in the autumn of 2020. Overgrown vegetation and sediments were removed along a 2 km river section, directly reducing the flood risk for more than 1,000 people in the surrounding communities.

“This is a major undertaking, and it is very important for us,” says Vladislav Zupan from the City of Struga. “It will greatly reduce the risk of flooding, especially in critical areas in the urban part of the town and the neighboring communities, which are home to several thousand people.”

National Project Manager Nikola Zdraveski emphasized that the whole operation was performed in record time while safeguarding the biological integrity of the waterway so as not to have a negative impact on the interconnected habitats.

“The cleaning of the river mouth and the riverbed of the Crn Drin is part of an integrated intervention encompassing cleanup and restoration of Sateska’s old riverbed, reuniting it back with the Black Drin River to reduce the flood risk, as well as to prevent pollution of Lake Ohrid,” says Zdraveski.

“The Drin River project promotes basin-wide flood risk management approaches along the Drin River, aiming to improve resilience of 1.6 million people living in the Drin Basin through a harmonized and integrated climate-resilient river basin flood risk management approach,” says Regional Project Manager Bojan Kovacevic. “This shall enhance the resilience of the vulnerable communities in the Drin basin to climate induced floods.”

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