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The pelicans that brought peace to a troubled corner of Europe

Environmental peacebuilding shows that restoring nature can also heal conflicts

By Fred Pearce

Water is a rogue force in politics. It arrives suddenly as a deluge. It disappears for years as a drought. Lakes, rivers and storms are no respecters of borders, where neighbors can squabble over every drop. We have been warned for years that water wars are coming, in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.  But what if they’re not? What if water can also be a way out of conflict?

A dedicated group of bird-lovers in a war-torn region of the Balkans in Europe is showing us just that. Rather than fighting over cross-border water, cooperation has brought benefits for all parties—a process known as environmental peacebuilding.

The scene for this radical rethinking of the environment’s role in conflict has been Lake Prespa, a shimmering body of water some 50 kilometers wide, on the borders of Greece, North Macedonia and Albania. Prespa is most famous for its unique population of nesting Dalmatian pelicans.  With distinctive silvery plumage and a bizarre range of barking, hissing and grunting calls, they are also the world’s largest freshwater bird, with a wingspan of more than 11 feet rivaling the great albatrosses of the Southern Ocean. Prespa is also one of Europe’s oldest lakes; one reason that of its 11 native fish species, nine are found nowhere else in the world.

The Balkan nations surrounding this ecological treasure have suffered decades of unstable politics and shifting boundaries. A civil war in Greece in the late 1940s saw the lake’s southern shore largely abandoned. It was a no-man’s land during feuding between Yugoslavia and Albania in the Cold War, and was neglected again during the long stand-off between Greece and Macedonia after the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Prespa could have been an environmental disaster but against all odds, it’s just the opposite. With locals and tourists alike shunning its shores through the conflicts, its wildlife survived largely unnoticed, except by aficionados. 

Enter Giorgos Catsadorakis, a Greek teenager who, after seeing a TV program about the lake’s pelicans in the 1970s, moved to its shores and dedicated his life to saving the lake and its famous birds. “I was almost the first outsider to stay for any length of time,” he told me. He found an uncongenial world for an environmentalist. Through the 1980s, he says, local fishers waged a war against the pelicans, which they saw as stealing “their” fish from the lake. “Pelicans were seen as vermin. Locals could get a cash reward for killing them.”

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Lake Prespa could have been an environmental disaster but against all odds, it’s just the opposite.

Lake Prespa could have been an environmental disaster but against all odds, it’s just the opposite.
Environmental peacebuilding has become a growing movement, and water peace has emerged as having particular political muscle.
Lake Prespa could have been an environmental disaster but against all odds, it’s just the opposite.

Photos by Ljubo Stefanov/United Nations Development Programme, Restoring Lake Prespa

Undeterred, in 1990, Catsadorakis set up a Society for the Protection of Prespa (SPP) in the small village of Agios Germanos overlooking the lake. His mission required building cross-border cooperation in a region where it was almost non-existent. But slowly, he and his fellow Greek ornithologists found common cause with bird lovers at both the Macedonian Ecological Society and the Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA). 

They began with thoughts only for saving the pelicans, by educating locals and building artificial nesting rafts on the lake. But really protecting the birds, they concluded, would require creating a transboundary park to protect the lake as a whole.  To achieve that, their work became a wider search for political as well as environmental reconciliation over water and land management in the region, he says. Each group lobbied their own national governments.

And so it was that a decade later, on World Wetlands Day in 2000, the lake became the centerpiece of political peacemaking. Amid the oak and beech trees of SPP’s hometown Agios Germanos, the region’s first modern intergovernmental political and environmental gathering about Lake Prespa finally took place. 

“There was a festival atmosphere as three prime ministers from Greece, Albania and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia walked up the hill through cheering crowds,” remembers Jane Madgwick, then head of WWF’s freshwater campaign effort in Europe. “Everyone felt proud.”

The three leaders signed an agreement to protect the lake they shared, and create around it an international reserve called Prespa Park. They offered fulsome praise for environmentalists from their respective countries, admitting that it was they who had made the political weather for this outbreak of peace. 

Environmental peacebuilding has become a growing movement, and water peace has emerged as having particular political muscle. 

For instance, India and Pakistan have agreed on little since the two nations emerged from the ashes of colonial rule in 1947. They have been at war several times. But a treaty they signed in 1960 to share the waters of the River Indus, which flows out of India and through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea, has held, and is almost the only enduring area of agreement between them. It is a lifeline for more than 230 million Pakistanis downstream.

Nowhere are the challenges more evident today than in the conflicts between Israel and its neighbors in the arid Middle East. But even here, a 30-year-old NGO called EcoPeace Middle East, with offices in Tel Aviv in Israel, Ramallah on the Palestinian West Bank, and Amman in Jordan, has shown that environmental thinking can have political muscle.

“Water is at the center of the environmental crisis in the Middle East,” says EcoPeace’s founder and Israel director Gidon Bromberg. “It can be a source of conflict or collaboration. We believe real change is possible when we work together to create shared solutions.” And, before the war in Gaza, the rewards were starting to come. 

In 2022, Israel and Jordan signed a declaration of intent to clean up the diminished and pollution-clogged River Jordan that they share. The declaration stands, said Bromberg in April 2024, but its execution “is on hold, due to the war.”  

Around the same time, lobbying by Bromberg also finally persuaded Israeli security authorities to allow the import to Palestinian Gaza of cement needed for three sewage treatment works originally proposed by EcoPeace. For a while, both Palestinians and Israelis could finally swim from their respective beaches without encountering Gaza’s raw sewage. 

But it didn’t last.  “Most of the sewage treatment plants in Gaza are no longer working because so much infrastructure has been destroyed,” said Bromberg.  

• • •

Environmental peacebuilding has become a growing movement, and water peace has emerged as having particular political muscle.

Environmental peacebuilding has become a growing movement, and water peace has emerged as having particular political muscle.
Environmental peacebuilding has become a growing movement, and water peace has emerged as having particular political muscle.

Photos by Ljubo Stefanov/United Nations Development Programme, Restoring Lake Prespa

Peace is always work in progress. The dream of cooperative management of Lake Prespa and Prespa Park, so grandly declared in 2000, has been slow to reach fruition. The three NGOs have worked together to help those living around the lake to appreciate and protect its wildlife, and stop illegal fishing in the lake and logging along its shores, says Aleksander Trajce, long-time director of the PPNEA in Albania. “Now the locals are proud of the birds that they once enjoyed killing,” says Catsadorakis.

Serious intergovernmental management of Prespa Park stalled for many years because Greece and Macedonia had unfinished business. Greece has had historic claims to Macedonia, and had its own province of that name. The dispute was finally settled in 2018, when Macedonia agreed to change its name to North Macedonia. Again, Lake Prespa was the focus and catalyst. The deal was named the Prespa Agreement, and the symbolism was completed when leaders arrived by boat for the signing ceremony in Psarades, sometimes called “the last village in Greece.” 

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsiparis told the assembled dignitaries that the Prespa Agreement would “heal the wounds of time.” Behind him, hidden in ancient juniper forests, were caves used in the 1940s by Communist partisans during Greece’s civil war. 

Three years later, his fine words became more tangible, when the three nations agreed on new rules for managing the Park. These include controlling irrigation by farmers on its shores, in order to raise water levels that had fallen badly due to withdrawals to water crops. 

It was, says Myrsini Malakou, Catsadorakis’s colleague and long-time managing director of the SPP in Greece, the “collaboration and willingness at local level, with local partners united in tenaciously lobbying their respective ministries [that] eventually brought the states together.” 

In Albania, Trajce agrees. “Prespa is a very good case of environmental peacemaking. Its impact has been felt in all three countries and has positively affected political communication in the region.” 

In March 2023, at the UN Water Conference in New York, its secretariat singled out the story of Prespa as a prime example of “what progress looks like” in international water management. It had been a long journey, but the citation noted that it was the SPP and its partners who “kept transboundary cooperation alive during those years.”

The wider lesson is clear. The news may be full of disputes and conflicts over shared global spaces that are the planet’s life-support systems: whether rivers, oceans or the atmosphere itself. But it need not be so. Environmental activism can be a force for peace. And peacemaking can deliver for the environment.

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Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the U.K. He is a contributing writer for Yale Environment 360 and is the author of numerous books, including The Land Grabbers, Earth Then and Now: Amazing Images of Our Changing World, and The Climate Files: The Battle for the Truth About Global Warming.

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