The vengeful sea devouring Albania’s coast

A fisherman fishes from a shore washed with tree trunks and roots, in Kune, Lezhe on November 8, 2017. (AFP)
Updated 13 December 2017
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The vengeful sea devouring Albania’s coast

QERRET, Albanie: Asim Krasniqi watches anxiously as the Adriatic Sea creeps ever closer to his beach bar in Albania, a country faced with an alarming pace of coastal erosion.
“I’m nostalgic for how this place used to be,” the septuagenarian told AFP wistfully, remembering when this beach in Qerret, to the west of the capital Tirana, was bigger and “many more” foreign tourists came.
“Today everything is degraded,” he said.
Environmentalists say a dangerous mix of climate change and rampant, unregulated urban development are behind the rapid disappearance of the shoreline in the impoverished Balkan country.
“The sea has swallowed the coast. She is taking revenge on man, who has destroyed nature,” said Sherif LusHajj, an environmental specialist at Polis University in Tirana.
The initially “inconspicuous” phenomenon has become far more serious in recent years, LusHajj told AFP.
Further north along the coast, near the concrete constructions in the beach resort town of Shengjin, dozens of tree trunks are decaying in water, a reminder that there used to be a forest between the sea and Kune lagoon.
The lagoon is now threatened, less and less protected by a thin strip of land that is fast disappearing.
Once perched on sand dunes, nuclear bunkers built during the communist era of dictator Enver Hoxha also now barely emerge above the water. Others have been engulfed by the sea.
Of the 427 kilometers (265 miles) of Albania’s coast, “154 are affected by erosion,” Environment Minister Blendi Klosi told AFP.
Sometimes barely perceptible, the advance of the sea in other areas has reached a frightening pace of 20 meters a year, he said.
Near Shengjin, it has engulfed “some 400 meters of ground in the course of the last 15 years,” said the minister.
“This place will disappear if the state does not take necessary measures,” said Osman Demi, a fisherman in his sixties who remembers the “terrible night” of December 31, 2009, when sudden floods submerged his village.
“We fish bass, crab, mullet here. The destruction of this lagoon would be a catastrophe,” said his colleague Albert Pati, adding that in certain corners, once full of fish, “the water is already dead.”
Pelicans have disappeared from the lagoon. A census conducted a year ago found just 7,000 birds, down from 50,000 in the 1970s.
Soon, if nothing is done, the people living here will also leave. There are 2,000 whose homes are threatened by the water, according to Jak Gjini, in charge of environmental issues in the Lezhe municipality, which covers Shengjin.
“The situation is dramatic,” he said.
Everything is working in favor of the sea’s conquest. There is climate change, with increasingly violent winter storms driving the water further and further in.
Then there is Albania’s massive deforestation, the extraction of sand from the rivers and rampant urbanization along the coast.
Almost deserted in winter, Shengjin is home to 15,000 people in the summer as holidaymakers and seasonal staff take up residence in blocks of multi-story concrete buildings, constructed on the sandy soil of the lagoon.
Those who have invested here are “the bosses,” said a fisherman with an enigmatic smile. These “bosses” build without permits, which they get after the building is erected using bribery during election campaigns, or hard cash.
“People are afraid to take on the interests of the powerful. It’s the law of the strongest,” said Gjini.
“These constructions are the result of pressure exerted by individuals to build without regard for urban planning.”
In his bar in Qerret, Krasniqi points out the rocky piers perpendicular to the coast that are sinking into the sea.
They were built without authorization by the owners of villas or hotels on the coast who hoped to protect their own property from erosion — but in doing so, they simply shifted the problem onto neighboring constructions.
“They have changed the currents, aggravating the problem,” he said.
Minister Klosi promises that “all the illegal construction in the sea will be destroyed and those responsible will be punished.”
But even this unprecedented action would not be enough, according to Eglantina Bruci, climate change specialist for the United Nations Development Programme in Tirana.
“The only solution... would be the construction of rock structures parallel to the coast and dune replenishment.”
Gjini said the cost of such measures would be “extraordinary” for one of the poorest countries in Europe — but by doing nothing, Albania anyway gets poorer by the day, he warned.
“Albania’s land is shrinking.”


Beatles’ Indian hideaway comes together, 50 years on

Updated 13 August 2018
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Beatles’ Indian hideaway comes together, 50 years on

  • Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram fell into disuse in the early 2000s
  • thanks to the efforts of a group of locals, the site has been reclaimed from the jungle

RISHIKESH: Fifty years after the Beatles came to India, the bungalows where the Fab Four lived, the post office where John Lennon sent Yoko Ono postcards and the giggling guru’s house are all ruins.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram, where the world’s most famous group sought refuge and spirituality in 1968 and wrote much of their seminal “White Album,” fell into disuse in the early 2000s.
But thanks to the efforts of a group of locals, the site has been reclaimed from the jungle and tourists now roam where tigers and snakes were until recently the most common day trippers.
“Before, people used to sneak in, which could be dangerous,” said local journalist Raju Gusain, instrumental in rescuing the area overlooking Rishikesh in northern India.
“There used to be leopard paw marks and elephant dung,” he said on a tour of the site. “Now we have erected a fence to stop animals getting in from the tiger reserve next door.”
By 1968, following the death of Beatles manager Brian Epstein the year before, fissures were beginning to show between John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.
But the group found a new mentor: the magnetic Maharishi who promised them happiness and enlightenment without drugs, through transcendental meditation.
The bushy-bearded sage persuaded them to travel to his spiritual retreat in Rishikesh, and so in February 1968 they fetched up with their partners, not knowing quite what to expect.
A world away from “Swinging London,” the band appeared to reconnect, penning almost 50 new songs.
Others there included fellow musicians Donovan and Beach Boy Mike Love, actress Mia Farrow and her reclusive sister Prudence, inspiration for Lennon’s song “Dear Prudence.”
The local wildlife — although the song is also supposedly about heroin or Yoko Ono — inspired “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” as well as “Blackbird.”
McCartney wrote “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” after seeing monkeys openly copulating, while Love’s presence helped spark “Back in the USSR,” a pastiche of the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.”
The band — with the exception of Starr, who brought a supply of baked beans due to his sensitive stomach and left after 10 days — enjoyed the break and the meditation too.
“I felt like I actually was a feather floating over a hot-air pipe,” McCartney recalled later of one session. “And I reported that to Maharishi, and he giggled: ‘Yes, this is good!’”
One local old enough to remember is Ajit Singh, the owner of a music shop — still open — in the nearby town of Dehradun, who fixed Lennon’s guitar and performed at Harrison’s 25th birthday.
Turbaned, thin and with a croaky voice, the 86-year-old Singh recalls with twinkling eyes the band wandering into the store one day, pursued by a crowd outside, and him “inviting them home for tea.”
“They were very polite with me, they were not haughty or something,” he said in his shop. “I always said to people that they were good people.”
After a while though, relations worsened between the Beatles and the Maharishi, the atmosphere soured by the yogi’s rumored sexual advances and his evident desire to make money from his famous new pupils.
McCartney left after five weeks and Harrison and Lennon after two months. Asked the reason by the yogi, Lennon is reputed to have told the guru, “If you’re so cosmic you’ll know why.”
But still, the Beatles helped put Rishikesh on the map for Westerners, and popularized meditation and Eastern spirituality. The Maharishi even made the cover of Time magazine in 1975.
His ashram initially thrived but then went into decline and was abandoned in 2001. Nature slowly reclaimed the site, while parts of the buildings were removed and people sneaked in and left graffiti.
But in 2016, paths were cleared, a fence was put up and some of the structures were repaired. Ruins they remain, however, although a few new murals have been added.
The site now charges an entry fee — 600 rupees ($8.75) for foreigners, 150 rupees for Indians — and boasts a cafe and a small photo exhibition and some information signs.
One recent visitor was none other than Prudence herself, said Raju Nautiyal, a ranger with the Rajasthan Tiger Reserve who has helped in the clean-up.
“I used to sing ‘Dear Prudence’ and one day Prudence came to play,” he said.
American visitor Atta Curzmann, 68, a “great Beatles fan” inspired to take a lasting interest in Indian spirituality, said she hoped the site would not be restored too much.
“The first time we came four or five years ago it was really run-down and we had to pay baksheesh (a bribe) to get in,” she said.
“But I hope they don’t make it too lovely and perfect because you want to see that antiquity, that part of it that shows the history.”