Due to delays, the government ousted the company building Lana’s water treatment plant. Now, the company has sued Albania in London and that’s what holds the plant hostage.
Purple colored uniform, thin, with a dark complexion, about sixty, gestures Shefki not to speak, and approaches slowly, as if climbing a mountain. Shefki, a fifty-one-year-old man in tank top and work trousers from the village nearby, takes a left about thirty feet from where we were standing, into the interior of this fenced-in place, where waves of yellowing grass begin, and again he begins to cuts it off with a scythe.
Like the site from where Lana starts in Dajt, the area is now technically part of Tirana. The peat field is named as Kashar plant, but the old names here don’t ring a bell to the city as Varri i Bamit, Burgu i Vjetër, Zogu i Zi, or Kombinati might, even though the Kombinati Square from here is not even two kilometers away. Next to it is the hill of Mëzezi. On the hill to the west, during the nineties, families from Kukës settled and the locals ironically call it Dukagji. On the east side of the hill there is the Zaltas cemetery and a mosque, a house, and a small hotel overlooking these twenty acres of wired fence — rows of tanks or cylindrical pipes, concrete storage units.
The man with the purple colored uniform walks by, to win some time. Afraid of spilling information, but also consumed by curiosity. “Ask near the Water Department,” he begins. “You will find nothing here. You need to go to Tirana, go to the General Directorate of Tirana’s Water Department, they will show you why work has stopped here. At the City Hall.”
He takes a step along the fence and the badge hanging on his neck turns to the right side. Private police Ndreu. After a quarter of an hour, after growling out angrily on the corruption and gluttony in the country, his own story begins to emerge. He started his profession in Skrapar as a zootechnician, but is now counting a little over 10 years living in a home in Yzberish. Girls, at school or married. In the afternoon, he strolls with his wife at the aviation field in the afternoons, comes here during the day. What can you do? He gets bored, but without a job he can’t make ends meet.
He began to work here when the state ordered the building site closure in the summer of 2018. Work has been done, ducts have been built at the “Pallati Shigjeta”, passing through manholes like the ones there, and he points beyond the fence. A well of concrete pallets, now surrounded by reeds feeding on the brown water. Where Lana would be purified, they won’t let you see the tubs — no one lets you see anything inside, but you can get a good look of them on Google Maps and off the hillsides — some days after the rain, he says, toads start emerging.
During lunch time, televisions launch Erion Veliaj’s media show, the mayor, who says the Lana water treatment project will resume works very soon, and Lana will have clean water. Its June, election campaign, elections are due in a week. But September is coming, and we are nowhere ready to start work.
The Greater Tiranas Wastewater Treatment Plant site, which was euphorically declared by the media that would eventually resolve the city’s sewage spill in Lana in 2016, was suspended by the Ministry of Infrastructure last year on a hot summer day like this. The venture with two hundred employees, considered one of the 200 largest businesses in the country, was wiped out in two weeks. Firms assigned to work on it were ousted from the construction site, which was seized. The workers’ cafeteria outside, owned by a man from Dibra, disappeared without a trace.
A ministry audit of last April claims all funds for half the works were spent. But just like Becchetti, the eccentric Italian who is winning in international arbitration for the closure of his ventures in Albania, the firm that worked on the site has sued the Government in arbitration in London for the unlawful termination of contract. “Oh no, if this goes to arbitration, Lana’s issues won’t be solved not even in another 10 years,” says Taulant Zeneli, who pursued it at the Ministry of Public Works as a project in the early stages.
The river polluting metropolis
Tirana discharges its sewage directly into the river. From the south of Kavaja Street, from the center to the former train station, they discharge into Tirana’s River. But most of the city, left or right of Lana, discharges them into it since communist times. How to fix Lana has always been a headache for the different state administrations. By the early 1990s, it was proposed to put a lid on it, or to drain the sewage in a tunnel under the concrete bed and to draw water elsewhere during the summer to prevent it from drying out.
No idea came to succeed because the city got completely out of hand. Lana’s slopes were swarmed with restaurants, shops and cafés, and the stream itself, in addition to the wastewater of Tirana, also collected its rubbish. In 1996 there was a polio outbreak and episodes of the plague, a disease that, like the epidemics of the pre-modern world, forced western residential centers to take control over sewage. “Lana overcomes the lexical difference between the terms river and sewage canal,” wrote PJ O’Rourke, an American satirist.
When the buildings plaguing the river were demolished in the early 2000s, the World Bank provided funds to settle part of the sewer system. On the one side of Lana, that of Shallvare, a collector pipeline was constructed where the sewers of that part of Tirana ended. That collector discharges into the river at the bottom of the concrete bed, at the “Pallati me Shigjeta”. But on the other side, the city continues to discharge sewage directly into Lana. “Pallati me Shigjeta”, has practically become the end of the bowel system of the city.
The Japanese Project
The attempt to solve the problems of sewage discharge in the middle of the city began sometime in the late nineties. Like all things that cost a lot, it would be implemented through foreign donations. The Japanese Government International Cooperation Agency, known as JICA, pronounced “Xhajka”, pledged to fund the solution of the ‘used’ water problem.
The objective was to build two underground canals, collectors, parallel to the river, to the “Pallati me Shigjeta” to separate the wastewater from the stream. The sludge of those canals would then be treated at a purification plant in the Kashar area, west of the city. The treated water would be almost drinkable and would drain back into Lana. The waste could be used to generate energy. A JICA employee said this would be the most modern sewage disposal project in the Balkans. To begin with, the pipeline to the plant and the plant itself would be built.
In 2008, the Albanian government received a soft loan of 11 billion YEN (approximately 100 million Euros) from the Japanese government for this. The only thing remaining was the public tender.
The Public Tender
Luigi De Vivo, the Italian engineer quoted in the first article of the series, arrived in Tirana in January 2015. “I came to Albania to speed things up,” he says. His predecessor was terminated within less than a year because they were far behind schedule. The site had been set up, but no work had begun. Nor were the expropriations made. But after a few months he began to see the real problems. “The contract was very rigid, it required strict deadline adherence, and we had a lot of problems with the subcontractors.”
De Vivo was hired as a project manager by Dondi, a company created by an engineer and entrepreneur in Rovigo, in northern Italy, to work on public water supply and sewerage contracts during that country’s economic boom in the 1980s. In 2013, Dondi won the tender to build the purification plant, in consortium with Kubota, the Japanese machinery giant, which would supply a number of special pumps. It committed to achieve it with about eight billion YEN, between 60 and 70 million Euros. The company had previous experience in Albania. Two years earlier, with EU funding, it had built a similar but much smaller plant in Velipoja.
However, when Dondi applied for the “Japanese tender”, there was some hesitation in Tirana. In the Italian press, articles emerged of a conflict between the company and a city of thirty thousand people in the province of Lazio. Even today, the company’s English-language page seems more of a Nigerian cyber fraud, with careless language about a company managing public projects worth millions of euros. For example, cookies for visitors to that website, legally declared in Italy, are written at the bottom of the page as a Cockies policy, which makes English speaking people laugh, not just because it is written wrong, but there are also some improper language implications. Until recently, however, Dondi had plenty of work all over Italy and abroad. “I spoke about this (hesitation),” says an official at the tendering process, for Italian newspaper writings. “But the Japanese liked that firm and said that a company that was not condemned could not be prejudiced.”
We are late…
By early 2016, it was understood that Dondi would not be able to finish the job on time.
The construction of manholes, necessary for the construction of the canal that would lead the sewage to the plant, was proceeding very slowly due to the expropriations. One of manholes ended up between two shoe factories on the highway, says a construction worker, another came out at a person’s yard who then threatened to come out with a rifle, and then was decided to search for trouble-free land. The project, and the work plan itself, underwent thorough changes.
There were also irritations at work. Once, a source tells us, complaints about the quality of the concrete laid on a ceiling held an installment payment off. “The problem was that our subcontractor also got another company to do the work, a subcontractor to the subcontractor,” says De Vivo. For construction work, Dondi had obtained as a subcontractor a firm called Sterkaj, with which it had previously worked in Velipoja. Sterkaj, run by the businessman Lulzim Sterkaj, a distant cousin of the entrepreneur, former police officer and socialist politician from northern Albania, Paulin Sterkaj, had subcontracted a firm called Shehu Construction. “With so much distributed responsibility, it was difficult to demand an account,” says De Vivo. The subcontractor itself complained that work was delayed during rainfall as the soil would rapidly become muddy and difficult to move. Moreover, in 2015, a decline of the Japanese YEN, on which the funding was credited against the Euro which the payments were made, was used as a reason for cost rising.
As a result, Dondi sought to gain a year of extension. De Vivo was replaced by another works supervisor. Our efforts to talk with Dondi’s supervisors and senior officials did not work, despite continuous insistence. With the works, Dondi continued at a slow pace and sometime in the spring of 2017, it asked for another twelve months extension. Albania would undergo parliamentary elections that year.
Chronology 1998 - The Albanian government asks the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) for help in studying the canal and sewage problem in Tirana. 2007 - A company commissioned by JICA, Tokyo Engineering Consultants, completes a study on wastewater management for the city of Tirana, and for wastewater treatment in the Lana and Tirana River. They are expected to be taken to an out-of-town treatment plant. July 2008 - The Albanian Government borrows a soft development loan of 11 billion YEN (about 100m Euros) for wastewater treatment interventions. December 2012 - January 2014 - The project for the construction of a wastewater treatment plant in Kashar and a tunnel that will lead part of Lana's sewage to it is tendered. The winner is an Italian company, Dondi. March 2014 - Dondi and the Ministry of Public Works sign a contract to build the plant, with Dondi pledging to complete the work within two years. The work will be monitored by the Ministry and a supervisory consortium led by Tokyo Engineering Consultants and designated by JICA. April 2014 - The plant site in Kashar is inaugurated in a ceremony by Minister of Public Works, Edmond Haxhinasto. 2016 - Dondi, the Italian company that heads the works, seeks an extension of the plant's construction deadline. June 2017 - Albania's parliamentary elections give the absolute majority of seats to the Socialist Party. - Dondi requires an extension of one year for completion of works. Fall 2017 – The Ministry of Infrastructure, replacing the Ministry of Public Works, sends an audit team to the Kashar project. April 2018 - The Ministry of Infrastructure asks for the criminal persecution of the team of the General Directorate of Water Supply and Sewerage for abuse in the management of the Kashar project. July 2018 – The National Water Supply and Sewerage Agency terminates the contract with Dondi due to project delays and sets a two-week deadline for emptying the site. October 2018 – The Tirana Court dismisses the case against the former officials of the General Directorate of Water Supply and Sewerage, for abuse in the Kashar project. December 2018 –Dondi files a complaint against the Albanian Government at the International Court of Arbitration in London, for unlawful termination of contract. September 2019 – The National Water Supply and Sewerage Agency says the Kashar wastewater treatment project is suspended until the arbitration ruling.
The political cost?
The vast majority of people we talked to about this project blame mostly the political feuds in the country. The problem, says Benard Banushi, a water and wastewater specialist involved with the Sterkaj project, is that this is a project that “started with the Democratic Party (PD), the contract was signed with the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI), and was terminated by the Socialist Party (PS).” According to him, the project became prey to a conflict where one side sabotages the other.
In fact, the LSI was in charge of the General Directorate of Water and Sewerage (GDWS), the Ministry of Infrastructure agency that was responsible for the project, even when it was in government with the Democratic Party, and when it was in coalition with the Socialist Party until 2017.
When the Socialist Party won the absolute majority of seats in parliament in the 2017 elections, it began auditing all the projects administered by the LSI, including the delayed Kashar plant project. An audit team, from the ministry this time, was stationed there in the fall. “It was not a good sign,” says one employee. “It’s never a good sign when an audit comes in.”
In the spring of last year, the ministry prosecuted those responsible for the project in the state side, alleging that approximately a quarter of the fund was misused. The abuses came from exchange rate justifications, unjustified invoices, and delays in payments. Among them, one-fifth of the fund could have been justified by the decline of the yen value, the lawsuit says.
The GDWS, with JICA’s approval, granted Dondi another year to achieve the objectives, but “it could not achieve them,” says a project official. “The quality of the work was good, but they were too late.” However, Dondi couldn’t even close half of the tunnels, and had made only a dozen of the manholes. Not even the plant itself was complete, though the work there was somewhat better. That July, Arben Skenderi, the then director of the GDWS, put the site, which reportedly should have costed 40m euros, under guarded sequester.
“I’m not a specialist on that project,” Skenderi said on the phone this September, when contacted for comment, and suggested speaking to other officials.
Last year, Dondi lost the trial in Albania: a dispute with the tax administration. The team stationed in Tirana was reduced and used, “just for the sake of appearance”, in all the other of the firm’s projects in the world (in Tirana as well as in Rovigo, word was that the company found it difficult to obtain contracts in Italy). This summer, the office was finally closed.
The Directorate General of Water and Sewage, dubbed since 2017 the National Agency of Water and Sewage (NAWS), says the project has been suspended until the conclusion of the arbitration in London.
The sewage in open air
Lana’s side slopes have long been arranged and landscaped, but here at the “Pallati me Shigjeta”, the smell is so bad that people crossing the bridge hold their hand near their noses. The smell continues to be bad even after the rain, when water comes from Dajti and causes floods, as the construction has tightened the waterbed. “If you want to understand Lana’s problems, go out during nightfall at the place where it passes through Laknas,” says Dritan Bratko, a hydric engineer who has been studying the water system for the current municipality’s strategic plan. Just a few meters away from this place, from the highway to the point where Lana joins the Tirana River and where the trash of the city accumulates. “At dusk, there are fewer cars, people start to calm down, temperatures drop but the ground is still hot, and the smell of waste the river brings is stronger and more suffocating. At that moment, the smell becomes unbearable.”
As if it was a ritual, the National Environment Agency reports say that it is the second most polluted river in Albania, after Gjanica in Fier. Nitrites, responsible for the smell, are three times higher than the acceptable level. There is little oxygen. Fecal bacteria feast in the stream. And all this mass moves to Ishem and flows into the Adriatic.
“The thing is, no one thinks about Lana, because it’s not something that generates votes,” says Banushi, a water and sewer engineer. In October 2018, the court dismissed the case against the team that the ministry took to court for abuse of a quarter of the funds. According to the court, the costs had either been approved by JICA, which was monitoring the project, or had been justified. The YEN really fluctuated by a quarter of its value compared to the Euro in 2014-16. According to the court ruling, the Ministry did not attend the hearing.
Kashar’s site continues asleep, in sequestration. A Facebook page with the English name of the project, Greater Tirana Sewage Water Treatment Plant, has a photo and two likes, anonymous.
Another uniform in purple of the Ndreu private police, we met this weekend, said that the power on the site had been cut this month, which upset him greatly because not even the radio could operate. But I’ve seen movement, he says.
“I’ve seen the project manager meeting a Japanese man. I have been told that the second installment has been received by Paulin Sterkaj and the work will be completed.”
*Arlis Alikaj and Donald Zaimi have also reported for the articles in the series.
**Editor Altin Raxhimi