Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Albania: Ecological Time Bomb

Life-threatening pollution endangers thousands of Albanians caught in a poverty trap
By IWPR

One of the deadliest toxic waste areas in the Balkans affords a home to some 15,000 Albanians who would rather risk contamination than move to a safer but more poverty-stricken region.

Drinking water, milk and vegetables are heavily polluted from waste generated by former chemical plants at Spitalle in the Porto Romano commune of western Durres district about 40 km from Tirana.

But far from seeking to evacuate the region, the authorities are encouraging new migration and building housing. "The area is a totally contaminated," said Ilir Qesja, head of the regional environment agency branch in Durres, who for years has vainly urged local officials to refrain from encouraging people to move here.

"At least we're alive," said herdsman Sakip Jani, a 50-year-old who looks 20 years older. "What can we do?" In a shop at the entrance to Spitalle, Dafina said, "I came 11 years ago to find a better life - I then discovered it was poisoned - but we have no alternative but to stay here." A youngster chimed in, "As you see nothing has happened to us".

Under the former communist regime, Porto Romano contained a chemical plant producing pesticides and a leather-processing factory. People still live in cottages located between the two former factories. Dr Behar Musatlliu, from the local medical centre, said residents suffer mainly from leukemia and lung illnesses as well as skin infections.

Three years ago, the United Nations Environment Protection Agency, UNEP, included the commune among the eight most contaminated areas in the country. The government, though, is doing little about it. Hundreds of tonnes of dangerous, polluting substances remain at these sites, despite a 12 million euro EU disposal project.

For the moment, the people in Spitalle can think only of fighting poverty. They never consider how close they may be to death. Between the two former factories is located the local elementary school with 431 pupils. In their breaks and after school, they play over torn sacks of pesticide. Three years ago money was spent on repairing the school building instead of tearing it down and moving the pupils out, as environmentalists wanted.

The children were asked whether they were aware of the threat, but simply shrugged their shoulders, smiled and ran away as if to show this reporter that they were healthy. A senior member of staff, who wanted to remain anonymous, said she and her colleagues had no option but to work in the area, "What can I do? I have a job and I must keep it. If I leave I cannot support a family."

People have come to Porto Romano from places where they could not earn a living. "Who would give us land to build a house and plant crops if we moved from here?" they asked.

Genc Alizoti, head of the Durres regional council, said the authority's responsibility did not cover Porto Romano and it had no funds to tackle the problem. But he acknowledged that people should be moved from the area and the pesticides taken away. "The officials have left us in God's hands," complained Sadik Berisha, a former employee at pesticide plant.

Albania's environment ministry said international donors have given 20 million US dollars to help clear up the country's contaminated hot spots. The first step would be to remove pollutants from the inhabited areas. But given the government's track record to date, it could be some time before this happens.

Edmond Prifti is reporter with the Albanian News Agency ATA.