The UN’s cultural body, UNESCO, has again threatened to reclassify the lakeside town of Ohrid as ‘endangered’ – saying the authorities had taken insufficient action since it issued its first warning a year-and-a-half ago.
North Macedonia has done little to fix issues in the past year-and-a-half since UNESCO first threatened to reclassify the lakeside town of Ohrid as an “endangered heritage site”, mainly citing persistent problems with unrestrained urbanisation, a draft report by the UN body made available on Monday said.
The lengthy draft, based on inspections done on the ground, notes a slew of old problems not being addressed but also some new threats to the historic town – one of only 28 sites across the world that UNESCO has named a world heritage site in both the culture and nature categories.
It is expected to inform UNESCO on its final decision about Ohrid’s status around June this year.
Among other problems, the report again pinpoints unrestrained construction in the town and its surroundings, the slow response of local and central authorities to illegal builds that have mushroomed even in protected areas and the continued destruction of nature and the eco system, in part caused by still non-functioning waste disposal facilities.
The document laments a lack of awareness among the local population, but also among the local authorities, about the need to preserve their heritage, noting the continued degrading of the unique architecture in Ohrid’s old town with rooftop solar panels, the piling up of illegal waste in some areas and the installation of urban equipment that does not correspond with the look of the protected city core.
It also casts a critical eye on a fresh plan to reconstruct the lake front in the town, and on plans to build a marina in the Studencista marshland near the town, which among other things is a vital breathing ground for aquatic life.
UNESCO for the first time threatened to downwardly reclassify Ohrid in May 2019, following a largely unfavourable report. This sounded the alarm and the local authorities promised swift action.
But, at a subsequent session in July 2019, in Baku, Azerbaijan, the UN’s scientific and cultural wing postponed making a decision, which was widely considered a politically influenced concession.
Instead the UN gave North Macedonia until the end of 2020 to rectify problems, or see the town and its surroundings added to the list of “World Heritage Sites in Danger”.
On Monday, the municipality insisted that despite the complexity of tasks at hand, it had already carried out “serious activities that put an end to the decades-long degradation of this region and set preconditions for greater protection”.
The municipality said that in the past year-and-a-half it had marked illegal builds, removed some of them, had introduced temporary ban on all construction and had launched a process for urban planning in the rural areas, as well as scrapping former plansa to build a ski centre on the slopes of Mt Galicica, which oversees the lake, and a highway along part of the lake shore.
It also boasted of conducting activities that have not, in fact, produced any given concrete results on the ground yet, such as forming a public enterprise to manage the collection of waste water; the system is still largely non-operational.
North Macedonia’s authorities see the preservation of Ohrid’s UNESCO status as a matter of national prestige, and as an issue that could potentially damage its reputation as a tourist destination.
However, most local eco activists in fact support reclassifying the site as endangered, feeling it might be the only way to finally solve the problems that Ohrid has faced for decades and get proper international help.
Ohrid sits beside the deepest and oldest lake in the Balkan semi-peninsula. Along with its natural beauty – it is home to many endemic species, such as the Ohrid trout – it boasts a rich cultural heritage. The old town is full of old churches, picturesque houses and centuries-old monuments.