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TIRANA, Feb 29 2008 (IPS) - The quality of Southern Albania's pristine beaches may well receive Blue Flag recognition soon – if the government addresses growing problems with solid and wastewater treatment in the region.
Albania is the only coastal country in Europe where no beaches are marked with a blue flag.
The initiative, which both the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme are looking into, would help Albania attract more tourists – a central strategic goal for development of the country of 3.2 million.
But it could also help locals engage in keeping their communities and their natural surrounding clean, setting a much needed example to all Albanians.
"Blue Flag is a community run project," explains Lauren Bohatka, the UNDP's eco-tourism programme manager. "You get the community involved to work together protecting the environment, and from that you can spearhead on other activities."
The UNDP official foresees the possibility of communities in small towns along the coast setting up bodies that would take responsibility for maintaining the cleanliness of the beaches.
The organisation also plans to find a national certification body for the country.
"There has to be someone championing the project, pushing it forward and taking responsibility, and others will follow," Bohatka told IPS.
Communities would be engaged with awareness and information campaigns in an attempt to mobilise locals, who would then be expected to gather around civic organisations responsible for maintaining the surroundings.
"It will have an awareness building effect, people will see what these areas look like, and they will want to associate with that, imitate those standards, and see how different a place can be applying these standards," UNDP project coordinator Dasara Dizdari told IPS.
Public participation in cleaning activities faded away after communism collapsed in 1991. Initiatives such as the weekly neighbourhood clean-ups are still perceived as having been imposed by the previous regime.
"Now everyone just takes care of his own little apartment or area without looking at the larger picture," Dizdari says, while noting that the issue is part of a broader waste management problem in the country. "Everyone is building his own house and fixing everything individually without thinking of an entire system. Some houses by the coast have their own sewage going directly to the sea."
But some hope the Blue Flag initiative will affect the situation positively. "The best thing is that it stirs up community pride; after the first community does it others will want to do the same, and it will start a little competition," Bohatka told IPS. "Once communities get this standing they don't want to let it go, and hopefully it will also inspire other entrepreneurial activities."
Albanians are already aware that tourism holds the key to development in coastal regions, and slowly they are also realising that a clean environment is a key asset in bringing visitors to Albania.
"The blue flag system in itself is a tourist attraction," Bohatka says. "Tourists who spot a beautiful beach from the road will no longer have to face the disappointment of finding a neglected site."
But problems persist. Coastal seawater is threatened by the absence of proper sewage treatment infrastructures, in spite of good intentions.
According to EU regulations, to which Albania ultimately hopes to adhere, agglomerations of more than 2,000 people require a centralised sewerage system and appropriate wastewater treatment.
In one such agglomeration, in the bay of Himara, discharges of untreated wastewater are already taking a toll on the quality of seawater as a new sewerage system awaits approval.
Many have also demanded creating regulations for sewerage and wastewater systems for communities of less than 2,000 people and for hotels or other locations hosting tourists.
Moreover, there is an urgent need for solid waste disposal systems, which are presently badly organised, with littering on the coast and unregulated garbage dumping damaging not only nature but also the quality of the landscape, another essential asset for the promotion of tourism in the region.
There are plans to complete the construction of a solid waste site at Bajkaj, near Saranda in the very south of the country, to which waste generated by towns along the coast would be transferred.
The government of Albania, with the support of the World Bank, has embarked on an Integrated Coastal Zone Management and Clean-up Project whose successful conclusion would do much to turn the Blue Flag project into a concrete reality.
"We've looked at the Blue Flag initiative, it is a very good idea to promote sustainable and environmental friendly tourism, but for the time it is very difficult to implement," Jamarber Malltezi, the World Bank's project coordinator told IPS.
In spite of the problems, Malltezi remains optimistic. "We believe the situation will improve in the near future, the coastline is long, and there are no industries in the area, so there is good potential."
This story includes downloadable print-quality images -- Copyright IPS, to be used exclusively with this story.
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