Helen Clark: Remarks at premiere of documentary on Prespa Lake restoration

Mar 24, 2017

The Prespa Lake Basin is over 5 million years old and its waters are amongst the most ancient freshwater lakes in the world. Photo by: UNDP/Ljubomir Stefanov


Good evening. I am delighted to be here in Skopje to celebrate with you the world premiere of our new UNDP documentary, “Lake of Apples.” The evening promises to be optimistic and upbeat, since the movie tells a remarkable story of a big win for sustainable development.

Even eight years ago, when I took up my post as UNDP Administrator, I was hearing echoes at our headquarters in New York of the exciting efforts being made to reverse pollution at Prespa Lake.

I am especially pleased that my visit now gives me an opportunity not only to see the results of this work on film, but also to see the achievements myself during a visit to Stenje and other project sites along the shores of the lake tomorrow.

At UNDP our core business is sustainable development. A top priority for us is to support our 170 partner countries and territories to achieve the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals which were adopted by world leaders two years ago. These goals urge us all to follow models of development which support good standards of living for all and achieve that without damaging the ecosystems which sustain life on earth.

When UNDP first came to Prespa some fifteen years ago, it found an ecosystem in deep distress. This ancient lake which had previously withstood millions of years of natural pressures was struggling to survive.

Its water quality was bad and getting worse; native fish varieties were on the verge of dying out; and the habitats of dozens of rare bird species, such as the Dalmatian pelican, were under threat.

The task before us all was clear: we needed to find a way, working with partners and local communities, to stop the pollution and protect this precious hotspot of Balkan biodiversity.

A way had to be found to ensure that the thousands of Prespa farmers who cultivate apples – the apples which give our documentary its name – could continue to make a living. Yet the manner of producing the apples was the major factor upsetting the lake’s ecological balance.

What followed was fifteen years of dedicated and often difficult work which tonight you will see telescoped into a film of just 27 minutes. This work was made possible by the Global Environment Facility which provided the funding to get us started, and to our long-standing partners at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation – SDC.  These two provided the fifteen million dollars which we used to translate into solutions over those fifteen years.  We are also very grateful to the Municipality of Resen, whose Mayor we are honored to welcome here tonight, and the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning, for their enduring partnership.

Working with these and other partners, UNDP was able to contribute to pioneering results, including a long list of “firsts” for the country and the region: the region’s first industrial-scale composting plant; the first basin-scale water-quality monitoring system; the first demonstration orchard and nursery; the first SMS-based alert system for pesticide-spraying; and the first wetland restoration program, which, once completed, will perform water-purifying functions equal to an entire sewage treatment plant.

So after fifteen years of work and fifteen million dollars of investment, we are delighted that Prespa Lake has been restored to health, thanks to a veritable revolution in the way the farmers grow their crops. Over eighty per cent of Prespa farmers have adopted environmentally friendly methods and technologies, such as “fertigation,” which combines efficient drip irrigation with careful doses of liquid fertilizer.

The results are clear: pesticide use is down by thirty per cent; the use of water for irrigation has dropped by sixty per cent; a million trees have been planted to reverse erosion; wastewater treatment plants protect the lake from raw sewage; and the tens of thousands of tons of rotten apples which used to be dumped into tributaries of the lake are now being transformed into rich organic compost.

This is a clear win for nature. Indigenous fish species have recovered as the water quality has improved. But it is also a win for the local economy, since farmers are seeing higher yields and better-quality crops at a lower cost. Finally, it is also a win for municipal governance, since the project has helped the local administration to create an environment department which will sustain the momentum for sustainable development after UNDP wraps up its work.

Our experience at Lake Prespa is rich in lessons learned, which we draw on as we tackle similar challenges in other countries and regions as they strive to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

What our UNDP Prespa team will tell you is that a transformation of this kind requires not only time and years of patience, but also hard data, rigorous and structured monitoring, and careful planning which takes a complex, multi-sectoral approach to all the processes – human and natural – at work in an entire water basin. I would like to congratulate them warmly here for all their achievements.

Finally, I would like to thank our film-makers – Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska - for finding a means of communication which is adequate to the breathtaking natural beauty of the Prespa ecosystem. At UNDP, we see “Lake of Apples” as a true breakthrough in the way we can convey the meaning of “sustainable development,” without any jargon or “talking heads,” and instead with the magical simplicity of a fable.

We hope you will agree. Please enjoy the movie, and we thank you all for your support and co-operation as we continue to work for sustainable development, here in Skopje and across the wider world.

Thank you for coming.


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