Pensioners fight water privatisation in Bulgaria’s thermal pools

07/12/2023

Journalist:

Constant Léon

Photographer and translator:

Iskra Ivanova

Photographer:

Gergana Encheva

Access to water has become a central issue everywhere. In Varna, in Bulgaria, the frontline of this battle is being fought on the seafront in the public thermal pools. And it's being fought by pensioners.

Locals, along with Russian and Bulgarian tourists, flock to enjoy the thermal waters of Bulgaria’s third largest city and a renowned seaside resort, Varna. From the pavement of the seafront promenade, the sound of conversation can be heard against the crashing waves. You have to bend down to catch a glimpse of the naked bodies of bathers in the “pit”, or “giol” in Bulgarian, the name given to the city’s last open-air public baths, which are free and open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Since Soviet times, many Bulgarians have frequented these mineral waters, whose temperature soars to over 37 degrees. As a child, Boyan Lyubenov used to come here with his grandfather. When he broke the helix of his knee, his reflex was to return. The video-maker from Varna spent many months with the pensioners here, unable to decide whether the water had therapeutic value or whether the placebo effect worked on him. As if to sway our thoughts, a man approaches us with a towel wrapped around his head. “Water heals”, he says in Bulgarian, before giving the microphone a suspicious look and leaving for the shower.

  • © Iskra Ivanova and Gergana Encheva

  • © Iskra Ivanova and Gergana Encheva

As Boyan Lyubenov descends the steps down to the pit, his gaze falls on some graffiti on the wall: “Compulsory shower before bathing”. The Varna resident looks at the clothes hanging on the hooks in the men’s and women’s changing rooms. Some bathers put their clothes on the trees or leave them to dry on the hot water pipe that connects the baths to the spring, which is housed in a small locked shed.

Throwing communism out with the bathwater

The pools resemble open-air municipal bathing rooms. Some people wash their clothes, others shave and spray themselves with cologne hiding under the gutter. Three grandfathers argue vehemently about Israel and Palestine, bare-chested, legs immersed in the water, gazing at the cargo ships on the Black Sea.

One of them turns towards us, lowering his glasses to see us properly. “Have you ever been to the Aqua House (one of Varna’s paying spas, editor’s note)? There may be a combination of sea and mineral water, but you have to pay 20 euros to stay for the day. Here it’s free. All those people who don’t have that kind of money can come here and enjoy it, you understand,” he exclaims before returning to his conversation.

  • © Iskra Ivanova and Gergana Encheva

  • © Iskra Ivanova and Gergana Encheva

  • © Iskra Ivanova and Gergana Enchev

However, this luxury, available to all, could well disappear. During his last term in office, the outgoing mayor, Ivan Portnih, wanted to turn the giol into a paying swimming pool. “Over the last thirty years, the deregulation of the economy has encouraged the concessioning of the country’s natural resources. Now, more and more springs are being privatised for extended periods of time,” notes doctoral student Slava Savova, who has been working on thermal baths and spas since 2020 and is closely following developments in their management. Almost everywhere in Bulgaria, mineral water that used to be available to all residents is now being bottled or used in the spa industry. A trend that is not without consequences for the population, as the researcher from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences observes: “This deprives communities of access to these waters, especially those with modest means, who need the access to the spring for bathing and washing. In Varna, even though the mineral water fountains still exist, the water pressure has been reduced and those are almost dry”

"There aren't many people in museums, but there's always a queue to drink water from the fountains."

In Bulgaria, the baths, when they are not privatised, are often transformed into museums, sometimes with a great deal of public money or European funding intended for the regional development of tourism. “There aren’t many people in the museums, but there’s always a queue to drink water from the fountains,” notes Slava Savova, pointing once again to the lack of consideration these projects have for the local context. In her view, this is the result of a clever combination of “a lack of expertise on the part of those in power, a lack of strategy, a high probability of corruption and sometimes a desire to avoid one’s responsibilities as an elected official”.

  • © Iskra Ivanova and Gergana Encheva

Below the pool, a person in a swimming costume stretches out on the beach. Behind her, the hose spits hot water onto the sand. Occasionally, a figure with reddened skin settles under the jet. At the edge of the pool, a grandmother grabs a recycled cream bucket and douses her neck with hot water, the water dripping onto her plastic flip-flops.

Boyan Lyubenov, seated on a bench, is soon joined by Iskra Ivanova, a dancer and choreographer, and founder of the multidisciplinary Moving Bodies festival. As a child, she used to come to the baths with her grandmother, back in the days when Eve beach separated men and women. “Back then, there wasn’t this concrete pool, it really was a pit, like a hole. The pressure of the hot water hose was even stronger, my little body was moved by the water, my grandmother had to hold me back”. The choreographer now regularly takes her daughter to the baths.

  • © Iskra Ivanova and Gergana Encheva

From the entrance steps, Ventsislava Nedyalkova calls out to us. The architect and founder of the NGO, Varna Spaces, has come by bike. In her view, we need to strike a balance between returning public space to the people of Varna and making the seafront dynamic and attractive with its restaurants and shops. She hopes that the new municipal team, recently elected, will be able to find compromises without falling into the alleged corruption of the previous mayor’s office.

The battle of the pensioners

For a year, Ventsislava Nedyalkova campaigned for the pedestrianisation of the seafront near the baths, organising a public screening of the film “The pitt” – it was thanks to this film, directed by Hristiana Raykova, that I first came to know the baths. For several months, the director followed bathers from the pit to their homes. We met a Russian immigrant who used to run the botanical garden zoo, now closed and a sex worker who works at night and lives in a cellar not far from the spring. “The bathers weren’t very happy when the film was first shown, as it revealed some rather taboo things,” says the architect, referring to the sex work shown in the film.

In the documentary, we also see the pensioners setting up several petitions and protesting in front of the town hall. At the time, in 2014, it was announced that the plot of land on which the baths are located was to be sold off as part of an urbanisation plan for the seafront, and that a system of entrance fees was to be introduced. Carrying placards reading “save the pensioners’ pool”, most of those who are splashing around peacefully today rallied for months to ensure that their open-air swimming pool remained a public asset.

The campaign worked, and the pensioners kept their social space free. However their attention with regards to this issue and the new municipal team, elected in November 2023, has not slackened. As Ventsislava Nedyalkova points out, the baths belong to the State, under mandate from the region, so it is impossible to privatise them. What’s more, the baths are located in a protected area to avoid contamination of the spring water. On the other hand, there’s nothing to stop them charging for entry.

"There are cowards in Varna who say they're going to close the pit. No one at the town hall wants to deal with that..."

Iskra Ivanova approaches a group of old men playing an enlivened game of belote. Ace of spades! Several people stand behind the players telling them what to do, without playing themselves. One of them explains while continuing to play and smoke: “I’ll tell you what it’s like. There are some cowards in Varna who say they’re going to close the pit so that no one buys it, does something with it and turns it into yet another luxury hotel, like those that have already been built on the coast since the end of the USSR. No one at the town hall wants to deal with that… and who’s going to pay the lifeguard? In these baths, the man assures us, cards in hand, that it is the volunteers who repaint the walls and roof, collect money to repair the benches and showers or buy brooms. “There’s no issue with doing things properly either, except that when the town council gets involved, they’ll charge admission! People can’t pay, they’ll stop coming”, he predicts.

The team of retirees meet every fortnight in the morning to clean the pool of accumulated algae. When asked exactly which day, they reply: “The brooms are over there, you can do it yourself. Then: “Can we carry on playing now?”

  • © Iskra Ivanova and Gergana Encheva

  • © Iskra Ivanova and Gergana Encheva

  • © Iskra Ivanova and Gergana Encheva

  • © Iskra Ivanova and Gergana Encheva

In the basin, a woman offers salted sunflower seeds. We’re a small group here, we’ve been well brought up, we have a solid culture. There are never any problems because we make sure that order is kept. We make the rules and if they’re not respected, then it’s out you go”, she describes in a firm tone, observing someone repairing one of the two clocks on the premises, which has been stuck at the same time for a week. Between the showers and the changing rooms, near the mirrors stuck to the concrete, someone has written on a piece of DHL cardboard: “I forgot my black swimming costume here on the 10th October. Please call this number so I can pick it up”.

Few people want to give their names here. When we ask them why, they evade the question. “They just want to be left alone after the demonstrations,” says Boyan Lyubenov, before leaving the baths, followed by Ventsislava Nedyalkova.

  • © Iskra Ivanova and Gergana Encheva

  • © Iskra Ivanova and Gergana Encheva

Stood by the hot water pipe, Iskra Ivanova sighs and points to the horizon. On the seafront, past the pit, near the harbour, what was supposed to be a yachting area has turned into a gigantic car park. A lot of people older than me are trying to escape from the present, where everything is commercialised and privatised, and they see that a lot of young people are also feeling lost”, she says.

On the phone, Slava Savova thinks. The situation with regards to the corruption and privatisation of the seaside is complex. The situation is similar along the rest of the Bulgarian coast and even on a post-Soviet scale. “The value of water reawakened the interests of politicians after the transition of the 1990s. Selling these resources to the private sector, whether bottling companies or spa businesses, is usually compensated with symbolic fees – the communities lose access and there is nothing in exchange. Everything is legal on paper”, she explains.

The Varna lake affair

For several years, Varna’s political leaders endangered its inhabitants. Near the baths, investigative journalist Spas Spasov gives us a detailed account of a case he worked on for several years, that of Lake Varna, which is now under investigation by the Bulgarian public prosecutor’s office. “We created a time bomb in Lake Varna, which ended up exploding in 2019”, sums up the Economedia journalist behind the revelations that brought the scandal to light. Varna is renowned throughout the country as a corruption hub thanks to a triad of oligarchs, the TIM. The former mayor of Varna, affiliated to the TIM, who wanted to charge for access to public baths, is also at the heart of a European project that has turned into an environmental scandal.

The Aspakhuovo district is separated from the rest of the city by a ship canal linking Lake Varna to the Black Sea. Nearly 25,000 families, each with around three members, live in this part of the city. Between 2009 and 2011, the Bulgarian government, with funding from the European Union’s Ispa programme, built a pipe linking Asphakhuovo to a wastewater treatment plant three kilometres away on the other side of the lake. The pipe cost around five million euros.

  • © Iskra Ivanova and Gergana Encheva

“The main problem that has occupied me for the last four years is the way in which the pipe was constructed,” says Spas Spasov. It had to be buried seven metres deep in a trench before being covered. All the construction work was carried out by the Bulgarian Ministry of Ecology. “In 2015, the construction was completed and Varna town council became the owner of the pipe”, explains the journalist. That same year, a boat passing through the lake threw out its ink, which fell onto something at the bottom of the lake and could no longer be hauled up. “In accordance with the regulations, the mayor stopped the boat to assess the damage. Two days later, he released it without anything having happened,” explains Spas Spasov in French.

On the 20th August 2019, another boat accidentally broke the pipe and sewage from the entire Asparuhovo district spilled into the lake. Shortly afterwards, municipal elections were held. The former mayor was a candidate and won his second term. Spas Spasov, who began investigating the case in April 2020 and discovered that the pipe had not been buried as planned, remembers: “For more than ten months, the mayor said nothing. He couldn’t reveal the accident in the middle of an election campaign. For more than ten months, more than three million cubic metres of sewage flowed into Lake Varna. The pollution of the lake led to the death of a large number of fish, which were spread over the beaches, and caused an invasion of algae throughout the bay of Varna. “The pollution became visible from the satellites that monitor the Black Sea. It was probably the biggest pollution episode in the Gulf of Varna for years”, he explains.

“If there is funding for the project, and all the funding is spent and the project is not carried out according to plan, that means that part of it is in someone's pocket.”

Work began to repair the pipe, three times, to no avail. The mayor of Varna and his team continued to hide the pollution of a lake in which people fish and swim. “We grow and harvest mussels in the lake, which feed on the filtered water, which we used to eat here in the restaurants on this seafront, without knowing that such pollution existed”, exclaims Spas Spasov.

However, before the pipe was built, engineers had already estimated that the depths would be difficult to dig because of the thick rocks in the water, and that the project could not therefore be carried out according to the plans proposed to the European Commission. “Despite this, a committee of eleven people – elected representatives from the town hall, representatives of institutions and representatives of three ministries – signed the protocol stating that the work had been carried out in accordance with the initial plans”, explains the journalist. Spasov leaves it to the Bulgarian enquiry and the ongoing European investigation to determine the precise involvement of the former mayor and the members of the commission in this disaster. “There is no doubt that corruption was involved. If there is funding for the project, and all the funding is spent and the project is not carried out according to plan, that means that some of it is in someone’s pocket.”

Taking inspiration from the baths

Back at the pit, Varna-born photographer Avela Admond, now living in Germany, joins us. She often accompanies Christo, a friend who photographed bathers. The morning fumes emanating from the baths and their shadows inspired her first aesthetic emotions as a child. “This place is a universe in itself, a universe within a universe. The people who go there create their own community in a time out of time”, she describes.

Avela watches the little tourist train, the only vehicle still running along the promenade. “When I was a child, this promenade was wild. It was a place where there were no shops, no cafés all along it like there are now. I felt like there was a different atmosphere. It is as if the alley has been transformed. It has been transfigured by the successive privatisations of the coastline, concreted over to build a string of restaurants. How did this commercialisation of the seafront happen? I didn’t see anything coming between my childhood and my return here. It’s ruining access to the sea.”

 

  • © Iskra Ivanova and Gergana Encheva

  • © Iskra Ivanova and Gergana Encheva

Faced with Avela Admond, Iskra Ivanova looks for a little hope. She finds it in the humidity of the giol: “A society can fight huge challenges, just as these people are fighting to keep their access to the baths. We can follow this model to achieve even greater changes in our society, or at least in its urban management”, she concludes. The man with the towel on his head was right: the water in the Varna baths heals those who want to fight for the common good.

Connecting the dots

Nicolas:

Member of the Citizens' movement of Paros

Reclaiming the beaches

On the 13th August 2023, Monastiri beach on the Greek island of Paros was the scene of some unusual activity. More than 600 citizens gathered there. The beach is part of the Paros Environmental and Cultural Park, which is located on a peninsula owned and managed by the municipality.

The original aim of the park was to provide a social service and promote cultural and sustainable tourism in the Aegean islands. However, the beach and its facilities were leased to a commercial company. This company first transformed the character of the place into “lifestyle deluxe” and occupied almost the entire beach with deckchairs and parasols, leaving no space for the public who do not want to pay to hire deckchairs. Yet the law requires that at least half of every beach be preserved as public space, and this is also the case with the legal concession, which covers less than half the beach.

On Sunday the 13th August, the meeting point was set at the Parc amphitheatre. A crowd of locals and part-time residents of the island gathered there. After various speeches and discussions to define our objectives, a human chain was formed to mark the outline of the legally conceded surface area, thereby revealing the surface area that had been improperly occupied.

Customers who had hired deckchairs reacted well to this demonstration, some even apologising for their ignorance of the situation or asking us to come and look after their beaches too, especially the visitors from Italy! Of course, the managers, for their part, tried to convince us of the legality of their installations, without managing to provide documentation.

This demonstration was not the only one to take place on Paros this summer. We – the Citizens’ Movement of Paros – organised similar events on various beaches every Sunday. Residents of other Greek islands followed suit. Faced with this mobilisation, legislators were forced to react. Today, many concessions may be in the process of being terminated, and we are closely monitoring the new regulations and control mechanisms that are being drawn up. The situation on the beaches of the Aegean Sea will never be the same again, and above all, citizens may have become aware of their power.

Personally, like many others, I became involved in this movement knowing that revealing the abuses on the beaches – which are easy to document and therefore prove – was a starting point for revealing many other abuses that are degrading the quality of life of citizens. And we won’t be able to put an end to them without pressure from the bottom up.

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