IT’S WORTH IT: Bronius Martinkus says the Blue Flag qualification provides good advertising throughout Europe.
KLAIPEDA - With the summer holiday season in full swing, numerous foreigners and locals on holiday at a nearby swimming site tend to heed not only the local leisure activities, the specialty restaurants and cafes, but, importantly, also the quality of the water and environment.
“Speaking of the surface water quality of most monitored Lithuanian lakes and other bathing sites, in 68 percent of them the ecological situation could be described as ‘very good and good,’ while it is ‘average’ at 26 percent of the bathing sites, and only 6 percent of all monitored water sites revealed a ‘bad or very bad’ ecological situation,” Mindaugas Gudas, director of Environment Condition Estimation Department (ECED) at the Environment Protection Agency, said. He emphasizes that the Neman basin, which takes up 75 percent of the country’s bathing waters, has become considerably cleaner in recent years, seeing a 20 percent drop in inflow of phosphorlous and organic materials. “The main reason for the lesser pollution is the modernization and building of wastewater purification facilities,” Gudas maintains.
He stresses that rivers and lakes in eastern Lithuania, further from the Neman basin, are particularly clean. “Ignalina region is considered to be the least ill-affected by human activities,” the ECED representative points out. “It is due to the absence of direct pollution sources, such as high-volume industrial objects, and the prevalence of eco-farming there,” he adds.
“Ignalina lakes, as a rule, surrounded by thick forests and free of private properties reaching their shores, have long been known for their fascinating splendor. Therefore, the region is called a jewel of Lithuania,” Gintautas Kindurys, Ignalina municipality’s council secretary says. “Sure, the acknowledgment attracts more local and foreign tourists to our municipality. It is a great boost to our economy,” rejoices Ignalina municipality Mayor Bronis Rope.
What else makes the Ignalina region special are the particularly stringent environmental protection rules being applied to it as a part of the territory of the Aukstaitija National Park. Environment experts point out five Lithuanian regions with the best ecological conditions of monitored lakes and ponds: 25 such bathing sites were pointed to in Zarasai region; 22 in Ignalina region; 21 in Moletai region; 14 in Svencionai region and 9 in Lazdijai region. However, there are over a dozen lakes in which their ecological status is described by the experts as “bad.”
In the sense of bathing water quality, Lithuania scores well on the European level as well. The recently released annual Bathing Water Report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) and the European Commission, which compares water quality in more than 21,000 coastal and inland bathing sites across the EU 27 states, reveals that quality of bathing water across Europe declined slightly between 2009 and 2010, but the overall quality was still high.
In the EEA report, Cyprus is seen as the star performer, with 100 percent of its bathing water sites meeting strict guide values, followed by Croatia (97.3 percent), Malta (95.4 percent), Greece (94.2 percent) and Ireland (90.1 percent). Though the agency did not enroll Lithuania among the five best countries, according to the criteria, it is presumably among the countries with the best bathing water sites, as the report pointed out that, in Lithuania in 2010, 100 percent of the coastal bathing waters met the mandatory water quality in 2010, the same as in the previous year. The rate of compliance with the guide values also reached 100 percent, which is an increase of 18.7 percent. According to the report, since the start of reporting in 2004, no coastal bathing beaches had to be closed during the season in Lithuania.
In 2004 the compliance rate in coastal bathing waters was relatively low, due to a large number of insufficiently sampled bathing waters. Since 2005, the compliance rate with mandatory values reached 100 percent, with a dip in 2007. Since 2006, the compliance with the guide values fluctuated, from 60 percent in 2007 to 100 percent in 2008 and 2010.” As far as inland bathing waters are concerned, the EEA report shows that, in Lithuania, some 82.7 percent of the inland bathing waters met the mandatory water quality in 2010. This is, however, a decrease of 15.2 percent compared to the previous year. The rate of compliance with the guide values decreased from 60.4 percent to 45.9 percent, according to the report.
No bathing water was non-compliant with the mandatory value for Escherichia coli, the same as in 2009.
Three bathing waters (3.1 percent) were closed during the season. Since 2005, the compliance rate with mandatory standards remained about 98 percent, except in 2008 (100 percent) and 2010 (82.7 percent). The compliance rate with the guide values increased above 60 percent in 2008 and 2009, but it decreased to 45.9 percent in 2010, when 14.3 percent of the bathing waters were insufficiently sampled. Closed bathing waters were reported only in 2004 (11.3 percent) and 2010 (3.1 percent).
The analysis brings together data from more than 21,000 designated bathing water areas across Europe, approximately 70 percent of them coastal sites and the rest inland bathing waters. Sites are classified as compliant with mandatory values, compliant with the more stringent guide values, or non-compliant.
The report has been issued to help local bathers to be aware of water quality for the 2011 season in more than 20,000 bathing water sites across Europe.
However, the European Commission has, meanwhile, given 10 member states, including Lithuania, two months to transpose EU rules laying down criminal penalties against sea pollution and other environmental offenses. Directive 2008/99/EC on the criminal law measures to protect the environment should have been introduced into national law by Dec. 26, 2010. However, 10 countries - Cyprus, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Portugal, Romania and Slovenia - have so far failed to do so. Meanwhile, the EC points out, eight states, including Lithuania, have failed to comply with separate rules on pollution from ships.
Should the member states concerned fail to notify the Commission of implementation measures within two months, the cases may be referred to the European Court of Justice.
Until recently, Lithuania’s Hygiene Institute was responsible for supervising water quality at bathing sites. However, from this year, the Health Education and Illness Prevention Center (HEIPC) has taken over the responsibility, measuring water quality in designated public bathing waters.
Its latest report, encompassing the water supervision results of the first fortnight of July, reveals that data have been received only from 72 percent of the monitored bathing sites. The latest HEIPC report showed that only six bathing sites did not correspond to the strict micro-biologic demands, revealing salmonella bacteria in the water sample from the Neman River at the town of Jurbarkas, virulent strains of Enterococcus bacteria in Panevezys Ekranas Factory bathing site, as well as in Birzai region and some other sites.
When it comes to cleanness, Lithuanian recreational waters scored much better in the EEA report, compared to Poland. Though the neighboring country boasts the large Masurian Lake District, having examined water from 315 Polish bathing sites, it turned out that a whopping 19 percent of all water sites do not comply with ecological requirements, and their water is of bad quality.
Being proud of the high bathing water quality in its lakes, rivers, lagoons and the Baltic Sea, which the European Environment Agency’s report acknowledged, Lithuania, and especially its three Baltic Sea-bordering municipalities - Klaipeda Municipality, Neringa Municipality and Palanga Municipality - are seeking acknowledgment of the quality of their seashores by attempting to obtain the much-prized Blue Flags.
The concept of the Blue Flag was born in France in 1985, when French coastal municipalities were awarded with the Blue Flag for complying with sewage treatment and bathing water quality criteria.
In 1987, the “European Year of the Environment,” the Foundation for Environmental Education in Europe (FEEE) presented the French concept to the European Commission, and the Blue Flag Program was launched as one of the year’s community activities. Thus, the Blue Flag has become a hallmark of water, beach or marina quality. As of 2006, an international set of criteria is being used with some variation within to reflect the specific environmental conditions of beaches and marinas.
This year, like last year, three Lithuanian beaches - the central beaches of Nida and Juodkrante and Palanga Botanic Park beach - were awarded Blue Flags.
According to the program administrators, the Blue Flag is a quality mark not only of a beach, but also is an international acknowledgment of a resort. “To be eligible for the Blue Flag for a beach or marina, a municipality has to fulfill all imperative requirements regarding environmental education and information, water quality and environmental management, as well as water quality, safety and service quality,” Renaldas Rimavicius, the Blue Flag coordinator in Lithuania, stressed to The Baltic Times. He says that Lithuania has participated in the program since 2001. Neringa municipality was the first to be awarded the Blue Flag, and was followed by Palanga municipality in 2004. Smiltynes Beach in Klaipeda municipality has also been awarded the Blue Flag; however, two years ago, following an inspection of the beach by chairman of the Blue Flag International Council, Malcolm J. Powell, it was taken away due to “the Blue Flag program-contravening criteria.” Local reporters were quick to uncover the deplorable status of the beach, finding heaps of cigarette butts on it, seeing dogs being walked all over and no available garbage bins around. Later on, the program officials pointed to missing public information on the Municipality-initiated environmental education activities on the beach, and even to locked container toilets.
Klaipeda municipality, however, instead of fixing the drawbacks, decided to withdraw from the Blue Flag Program, giving up its two Blue Flags for another two beaches in Melnrage. Klaipeda municipality officials, asked about the abandonment, were quoted by local media as saying: “We believe that participation in the program is not as much about quality of beaches, as it is much more about money and, therefore, promotional campaigns.”
The FEEE charges local municipalities 20,000 litas (5,797 euros) a year for the Blue Flag membership. “The annual fee is high. Therefore, instead of paying the money to the Blue Flag administrators, we would rather give it for the maintenance and cleaning of the beaches, which is a much more rational decision,” Irena Sakaliene, the then-head of Klaipeda municipality’s City Management Department, said to the daily Klaipeda two years ago.
Palanga Mayor Sarunas Vaitkus, however, pursues a second Blue Flag for Palanga. “The Blue Flag is a quality mark of a beach, maintaining its impeccable management, cleanness and proper infrastructure. In other words, it is a business card of a resort town. The more Blue Flag beaches we will have in Palanga, the more prestigious the resort of Palanga will be. Furthermore, the certificate-bearing beaches are usually marked on special European maps, which is also very important,” Vaitkus pointed out.
Palanga municipality is to invite representatives of the Lithuanian Green Movement, the FEEE-representing legal entity in Lithuania, to evaluate some other beaches and their infrastructure in Palanga. Meanwhile, the resort already has one Blue Flag beach at its Botanic Park. “Most likely, we will not be able to obtain membership in the program this year. However, next year, definitely, it will be our task,” the Palanga mayor said. He says that, in order to correspond to the strict criteria of the program, Palanga will have to put in order wooden trails for disabled people in wheelchairs on the beach.
“I welcome the idea by our mayor. As far as direct benefits of the participation in the Blue Flag Program are concerned, they are little or absent in terms of money-generating. However, the membership, definitely, creates a large added value in the sense of popularizing our resort in the whole of Europe, as this kind of information is spread in all tourism information bureaus, as well as travel agencies. It certainly attracts larger flows to Palanga, and the annual fee of 20,000 litas certainly pays off. No doubt about it,” Bronius Martinkus, deputy director of Palanga municipality administration, said to The Baltic Times.
Renaldas Rimavicius, the Blue Flag coordinator in Lithuania, says he is optimistic about more Lithuanian beaches’ involvement into the Blue Flag Program. “Some beaches in Neringa, like the ones in Preila and Pervalka, as well as several Palanga beaches have excellent chances of joining the venerable program. In regards to inner bathing waters, bathing sites in Kupishkis lagoon have great prospects in obtaining the Blue Flag. I hope they will bring their infrastructure up to the FEEE requirements and will be awarded the flags,” Rimavicius said.