Disasters & Accidents

Drought worsens pollution in North Macedonia as hydropower plants close

Ivan Blazhevski

Skopje, Nov 17 (efe-epa).- For several months, Northern Macedonia has been facing a drought that is draining the region’s lakes and rivers and has forced an increase in the production of thermal power plants, which are highly polluting, due to the inability to maintain the activity of hydroelectric plants.

In the reservoir at Debar, one of the areas that has all but dried up, Marko, 67, sets up his tent to rest before going fishing.

“Today we can sleep where we used to cast our lines,” the veteran fisherman tells Efe.

“I’ve been fishing in this lake for almost 30 years but it’s getting harder and harder. The water level has dropped and I’m picking up algae instead of fish,” he says.

In some parts of North Macedonia, water levels have dropped by hundreds of meters in the last two years. This, coupled with the recent drought, has caused the state-owned hydroelectric power plant company ESM to stop producing electricity in the second week of November.

“Water levels in natural and man-made lakes have dropped. A greater danger to the flora and fauna must be avoided,” the government said in announcing the cease of operations in the country’s hydroelectric power plants.

Such plants account for up to 26 percent of the national energy production in North Macedonia, with up to 1200 GWh per year, while wind power is limited to just a few plants.

The rest of the domestic electricity production comes from thermal energy, based mainly on the environmentally harmful combustion of charcoal.

The closure of the hydroelectric power stations meant that the government had to step up imports of electricity from abroad and thermal power stations increased their production speed to compensate for the loss of energy output.

This has raised pollution levels in North Macedonia, which is already one of the most polluting countries in the world and tops the list of regions with the worst air quality during autumn and winter.

Bitola, home to about 75,000 people, is a city that is located a few kilometers from the TEC Bitola thermal plant, a plant that provides almost 70 percent of the country’s electricity production.

During autumn and winter, this region of Pelagonia has some of the most polluted air in the country.

“It is definitely the biggest polluter in Macedonia,” says the spokesman of the Regional Geographic Society of Bitola, Mite Ristev, who says that European surveys have confirmed that TEC Bitola is one of the region’s worst polluters.

In addition, he points out that 32 percent of the deaths in this area in recent years are attributed to an “unknown reason,” according to official data from Public Health, but for him there is no doubt that these deaths are the result of contamination.

Bitola biochemistry expert and environmental activist Gabriela Ilieska highlights the negative impact the power plant is having on the mountain’s plant and animal species.

“Not only do we know that the air is contaminated, as the measurements show, but it is beginning to affect Pelister National Park, even in its highest areas, where the endemic Molika pines are found,” she says.

The closure of hydroelectric power plants not only increases air pollution, but it also opens the door to a new rise in electricity prices this winter in a country whose homes and economy are already badly affected by closures due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Official data from the Hydrometeorological Institute in Skopje indicate that general rain and snow levels have decreased in recent years, putting future hydroelectric power production at risk as well.

“We hope to see some rain in November,” says Macedonian hydrometeorologist Vasko Stokhov. EFE-EPA

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