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International action for Europe’s last wild river

Vjosa river. credit GREGOR ŠUBIĆ

Albania, its plains, mountains and above all, the Vjosa, Europe’s last wild river. Preserved over the centuries, this 272 kilometre-long river is threatened by dam projects and poor protection of water resources and habitats.


A mythical river

The Aoös, after its Greek name, flows fairly freely for nearly 300 km, from Greece to Albania, before reaching the Adriatic Sea. Its upstream course in Greece is punctuated by a few dams and reservoirs for hydroelectricity and agricultural needs. The Vjosa is therefore an almost wild river in comparison to many other European rivers which are obstructed (see the article written by IFGR: Europe’s fragmented rivers). “Unfortunately, it is one of the last European rivers to have escaped obstructions, sadly remining us of what many of the streams of mountainous foothills looked like several centuries ago” explained Gilles Pinay, Director of Research at the CNRS. With its rich sediment flows and exceptional biodiversity, this river has become a reference and an open-air laboratory, accommodating more than 1,100 species, most of them endemic.


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The future of this river is nonetheless threatened by hydroelectricity projects and the development of infrastructures near its delta. As early as the 2010s, associations warned of the challenges of biodiversity and the utilisation of this river as a water resource. In 2014-2015, at the instigation of the Albanian Ministries of the Environment and Agriculture and with the financial support of the Rhone, Mediterranean and Corsica Water Agency, CNR, CEREG and the local engineering office Yliad have established a Master Plan for the Development and Management of Water of the Vjosa basin. This first initiative of Integrated Water Resource and Wetlands Management was followed in 2017 by an evaluation of the hydro-ecological and socioeconomic systems of the Vjosa financed by the European Union.

A new step was launched in February 2020: scientists expert in this ecosystem sent a petition to the Albanian President to ask for a moratorium on the uncontrolled development of hydroelectricity installations and gathered scientists and politicians in favour of the sustainable management of this basin. (link to Beyond the issue of infrastructures, the aim is to establish a model of integrated basin management faced with climatic and economic challenges, in terms of availability and allocation for different uses, from agriculture to drinking water. This river is indeed one of the “sentinels of changes linked to climate change”, according to Gilles Pinay.

Furthermore, it is necessary to take into account the needs of the populations that have traditionally resided in this catchment area. The lack of aid and control by the government have led to severe impoverishment and desertification, associated with the abusive and even illegal exploitation of natural resources (extraction of granulates, slash and burn, poaching) and the development of various types of trafficking. The impacts on the habitat are considerable: the soils are subject to substantial erosion linked to precipitation gradients on very steep mountains, aggravated by increased levels of grazing following recourse to slash and burn since the end of the 1990s. This erodibility has resulted in massive inflows of sediments along the Vjosa that are incompatible in the medium and long terms with the safe management of hydroelectricity installations such as those designed today, unless massive extractions of granulates are carried out after each flood, a measure that would unsettle the river’s fluvio-morphological functioning.

Mobilisation to protect this river took on a new dimension in 2021, with demands to have it included in a National Park.


An international campaign

The project to create the first national park was launched on the eve of the Albanian parliamentary elections in spring 2021. Activists, citizens and people in favour of protecting the environment, supported by scientists, demanded this status to stop the construction of dams. The European Parliament partially supported the initiative, by calling on the local authorities to “create the Vjosa National Park  as quickly as possible, by extending it along the entire length of the river”. As for the IUCN, it saw a “rare opportunity to protect one of the last great wild rivers”, according to Kathy MacKinnon, President of the World Commission on Protected Areas.

The initial demand focused on a new status, different from that of protected areas. It is inspired by the Wild and Scenic River Act in force in the United States. According to Ulrich Eichelmann, director of the NGO RiverWatch:

In Europe, there is a desire to establish a similar protective status, because categories like Natura 2000 sites do not really function for rivers. This first European WRNP (Wild River National Park) will have a genuine political effect”.

Its promoters say that it will attract a large number of ecotourists and above all generate income for local communities. As for the inhabitants of the valley, they have organised petitions, demonstrations and legal actions against about thirty dam projects.

In September 2020, the Albanian political leaders publicly announced that the “queen of rivers” would become a national park, to protect the entire river and its tributaries, while the Minister of Tourism and the Environment issued a negative opinion regarding the environmental impact study of the Kalivac hydropower project, thus stopping its construction. However, citizens and local activists remain worried, since 95% of Albania’s electricity is generated by hydropower installations. Nonetheless, this is the first victory for environmental campaigners: the administrative court of Tirana has just thrown out a lawsuit submitted by the promoter of the plant, the Turkish-Albanian consortium Ayen-Alb, which disputed this negative environmental declaration.


More about the Vjosa and its basin: read the European report  Vjosa River Assessment – 2017

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