The open sewer in the middle of the city

Lana flows through Tiranaa in its most crutial neighborhoods. In the first article of this series, we will show how the Lana river has turned into a septic tank in front of everyone’s eyes.

Author: Fjori Sinoruka, Joana Spaho

“This is not a stream. This is a sewage canal, a sewer, in the middle of the city. ”
Luigi da Vivo rented a house next to the Dinamo Stadium area and was expecting to stay in Tirana for a long time. He easily adapted. People spoke his language and there was a Conad in the neighborhood, a supermarket that to an Italian could mean something. However, our country was a wonderland to him. It seemed to him that, the dimwitted would talk gibberish endlessly and the smart would bow their head. The luxury cars, the Porsches, the Lamborghinis and the ‘chitchat’ he found here he had not seen his whole life in Bari, where he came from. Slightly away from the center, or even from Bllok, and the country would transform into one of those villages south of the Apennines that he had visited in the 1980s, after an earthquake left a quarter of a million people on the streets. Albanians, the more they help each other by bringing it on the table, and the easier they would disregard the Lord’s affairs, they could as easily, in a fury, set it all aflame due to politics.
And Lana, the stream that flowed through downtown, whose slopes or side walls have been planted for the last fifteen years, was “una fognatura in cielo aperto”.

“If the sewage water wouldn’t drain in Lanë, that river would be dry during the summer,” says Dritan Bratko, hydrological engineer. Photo by Joana Spaho ACQJ

Lana, a symbol of ill governance

The way we have dealt with Lana may be the best example of what we have done with our country since it was created in 1912, or exactly when we appointed Tirana, nine years later, as the capital. Any interference in that riverbed, which either feverishly or mildly attempted to fix, would cause greater and unthinkable problems, and anything done with it would have a foul smell.
Directing the riverbed into a canal left the Tabaka Bridge in Elbasani street orphan. Urbanization has turned that stream, as state affairs are seen in the public perception, into a septic pool in the middle of the city. The reasons why the city used that stream of water before — Lana was the place where tanners and tailors once rinsed their skins and dumped tannins; where Muslim women washed their clothes with ashes; that basin of polluted water in a Roma camp with straw and tin cabins; that stream somewhere near today’s Ballet School, where Qamil Shtiza waited with a rifle between his legs and sleepy eyes under the cicadas buzz for a wild rabbit to jump; or that basin a couple of feet in diameter before heading to Brryli, where the children would bathe during summer and catch some fish — all those reasons no longer exist. That concrete bed does nothing but parade most of Tirana’s sewage in front of everyone’s indifferent eyes.
There is no living thing in that river except coleoptera- dragonflies, mosquitoes, and any other similar living things – says Aleko Miho, a biologist at the University of Tirana who studied the stream ten years ago. There are also densities of fecal coliforms, bacteria that emerge from the human intestine through the excrement system. It partly explains the stench in the middle of the city.
“The weird thing is,” says Dritan Bratko, who has conducted the hydrology study of the area for the city’s regulatory plan, “if the sewage was not drained in Lana,” that is, if half the city’s sewers were not drained into it, from Kavaja street up to the hills of the City Lake; unless the water of shampoos was not blended into it to soothe the scents of the evening, if the laundry and hand soaps, with waters with traces of stew and the vapor of the gravy on the plates, with the fermented barley sludge of beer were not mixed into it… and there was no rain – “that river would be dry.” Now that Albania had more than a century of taking matters into its own hands, Tirana had brought that filth into the city’s main river, Lana that would be left without water during the summer.

The place where Lana crosses the motorway for the first time under Dajti’s Stone Quarry, it has begun to fill up with waste. Beyond it, there are still snakes, says a resident. Photo ACQJ.

Where the stream starts

Lana is one of four streams that descend down to the plain as it collects rainstorms on the west side of Dajti to the area where Tirana lies. Two of them, Tërkuza and Shëmria, are used for drinking water. Lana and Tirana’s river are used for sewerage.
Lana begins its 24-kilometer course somewhere between the bushes near the stone quarry in Dajt and erodes through the bushes to the main road. There, in a café on the right side of the street, fifty-five-year-old Refat Qordja complains that he cannot make ends meet with the 300,000-lek he receives each month as a dispatcher with a grown-up boy at home. The roof of the café is concrete with raised iron bars, ready to build a second floor in the future.
Next to it, a hut where the chickens peck the ground and a fig tree shades a yellow cellophane tent where it is written Carwash. From the left of the street you can feel the scent of the pools of chlorine and the muted loudspeaker boom that keeps its customers energized – this is the private initiative of the current administrator of Lanabregas, now the city’s eastern neighborhood, for youth entertainment. In the tunnel beneath the asphalt, the waters have collected cellophane bags, car oil bottles, glittering sheets of Greek industrial crustaceans with mud stains. There from where the tides come in, rarely does one go now in the summer. “There it is full of snakes,” says Genc Haxhialiu, a seventy-two-year-old who maintains the village villa of a nearby Albanian diplomat.
The roadway then takes a turn to the north, creating a balcony that overlooks the swarm of town houses across two soft hills, between which the stream winds down to reach the former auto-tractor area. There, the human touch starts to become really brutal.

 1920 – Tirana becomes the capital
 The 30’ – Lana's bed is regulated into a concrete basin from Elbasan Street to today's Dëshmorët e Kombit Boulevard.
 1955 – Regulation of the rest of Lana begins along the inner-city ring road. From Bërryli to Vasil Shanto's turn. Sewage waters drain into it. The side slopes are planted with greenery.
 The 1980s – The first ideas to add water to Lana during the summer from other water sources in Dajt are proposed.
 1994 – During an idea competition for the management of Lana, it is suggested either covering it or draining it into an underground waterbed.
 1995-2000 – Lana's slopes are populated with commercial activity buildings.
 1996 – Evidenced cases of poliomyelitis are thought to have originated from the filth in the river’s water.

Why do we need a river?

Cities use rivers for transportation, to irrigate land, and to wash off waste. However, the big problem in the west started when the population grew more than the water could purify, and it was the plague or typhoid epidemics that forced big cities like London, Paris or New York to build sewage systems. “Even today, the most expensive enterprise in Paris is the sewer maintenance along the Seine,” Bratko says. The small rivers in the cities were closed for the sewage waters to pass underground, as with Paris, Athens or Pristina.
In the Balkans, cities preserved rivers that were important, mostly plain and navigable: you don’t have to build concrete slabs over Cem in Podgorica, Vardar in Skopje, Sava in Belgrade or Zagreb, or the Danube in Bucharest.
However, Lana had never been more than a capricious stream coming from the mountain when it rained, but almost disappeared during the summer. “It turned into a crucial river by chance,” says Gjergji Papavasili, who has been involved in city planning from the 1980s up to today. “It became a transport corridor and a decorative element even though it didn’t have the elements for it.” It was a stream that could be useful to tanners in a small city of 15,000 habitants, it could not cope with a city whose population multiplied fast in less than a century.
In the thirties, the water line ran through the bushes, some of it being used seldomly by craftsmen. It was King Zog who, under the influence of Italian architecture, first attempted Lana’s planning, the first concrete bed in what still runs today between Elbasan Street and Deshmoret e Kombit Boulevard. In the fifties it extended to the Ring Road. In 2000, the concrete bed extended to the “Pallati me Shigjeta”, and then Lana returned to its natural bed where it joined the Tirana River a few kilometers downstream, in Laknas across the Durres highway to the west.
“It is always thought about how Tirana was transformed by communism and transition,” says Elton Koritari, Tirana’s first architect who was responsible for Albania’s pavilion at the Venice Architectural Biennale in 2017. “Tirana’s first deformation was started by the Italians.”
An Ottoman city, like those in medieval times, developed with pockets and patched neighborhoods, with winding roads that fit the landscape. However, the nineteenth century brought to the West boulevards and straight roads within the cities, where carts, cars, and trams could quickly pass through. In Albania, this came mainly through Italian fascism.
For example, the city was relatively distant from the Lana and the Tirana River alike, the second having more water and eventually collecting Lana as well, but in the last century Tirana only developed south, in the direction of Lana and beyond. With that expansion, beginning with the neighborhoods along the boulevard, then under the hills of the City Lake with what was called the New Tirana in the sixties, the sewage water was dumped straight into the river, first through it, then by sewers, and the city began to reek a foul stench right in its heart.

Researchers say the many constructions along the Lana waterbed run the risk of turning it into a flooding source. The map, which shows the part of Lana where it meets the Tirana River, with endangered areas, is a courtesy of Dritan Bratko.


As the city continued to expand, turning the Lana waterbed into concrete, which expanded in the 1950s and 1960s, led up to another problem. When there was water, the river had nowhere to go. In the fall, heavy rains in Dajt brought all the water to the center within three hours, says Bratko, a hydrologist. The water would rise above street level. It would flood the Shallvare buildings’ ground floors. Lana is the classic example of city flooding for students of the geology university of Tirana. Road construction narrowed the riverbed west of the city, from the Technology School to “Pallati me Shigjeta”, where the water passes under the Kavaja street, turning it into a faucet that cannot hold the pressure.
There was no solution in sight, except for electoral slogans (Lana’s utopia of three-dimensional projection presentations was promised in electoral campaigns six years ago.) All cities have polluted water problems. Zagreb built a purification plant — suspected of funding abuses — only in the 2000s. Belgrade does not have one yet, but it may need six. Podgorica is doing it with a loan from the German Bank for Reconstruction.
For Lana, it was once proposed to close the bed of polluted water, and to draw water from the reservoirs in Dajt for the dry months of the year, and this was the cheap version, albeit a ‘Socialist’ one. A much more expensive ‘Democrat’ version was proposed, to cover it almost completely, and to turn it into a big boulevard. In 1994, when the idea was put into circulation, the Democrats headed the municipality, the project won the competition, but it was not possible to be implemented as it required tens of millions of dollars, says Fisnik Kruja, one of the engineers who ran in the competition. This coincided with the construction period of restaurants and bars and the pestilence that erupted thereafter.
“Getting water from somewhere else would solve the problem of the river,” says Bratko. As an idea this has been around since the eighties.” But I think it will not be accepted because since consider it to be expensive.”
By the late 1990s, the Albanian Government had been discussing with the Japanese to find support for the solution of the sewage problem. In 2007, a Japanese engineering company presented the final draft — the solution would be to build a wastewater treatment plant, and build collector pipelines that would collect water from the east of the city from Dajti to “Pallati me Shigjeta” in Kavaja Street. In 2013, Costruzioni Dondi, a company from Rovigo in northern Italy, was appointed to run the works. In 2014 the ribbon was cut.
In January 2015, Luigi Da Vita, an engineer from Bari, saw it as a stream for the first time. He was contacted by Dondi to correct work delays, within a short time, within a year or so.
La fognatura in cielo aperto.

*Arlis Alikaj and Donald Zaimi have also reported for the articles in the series.

**Editor Altin Raxhimi

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Copyright © 2023 Giljana Limani.  All Rights Reserved.