The Balkan Peninsula is home to the last wild rivers in Europe. At present, around 3,000 hydropower plants are planned or under construction in the region, more than 1,000 of them in protected areas. One main target river for this “hydropower tsunami” is the Vjosa, the longest existing wild, undammed river on the continent outside of Russia.
Please also read: Help saving the blue heart of Europe
Along its entire course of over 270 kilometers, the Vjosa is untamed and free-flowing. Only once, shortly after the spring in the Greek part of the Pindos Mountains, the Vjosa is dammed. It is characterized by beautiful canyons, braided river sections, oxbows, meandering stretches, gravel banks and unique island formations. In some areas the riverbed expands over more than 2 km in width. Many of its tributaries are still unobstructed as well, creating a one-of-a-kind river network in Europe.
In this system several animal species thrive, that have become scarce in the rest of Europe, such as the endangered European eel. Especially for migratory fish species, the clear, cold and gravelly Vjosa is an ideal habitat. According to Riverwatch 69 species of fish are present here that are not found anywhere else in the world. In addition, there are 40 percent of all freshwater mussels and snails in the region, which are endangered in the rest of Europe.
An uncertain future
For people living along the coast, the appearance of hydropower plants means their homes as well as livelihoods could be threatened. In many villages, people are farming. The villagers live off what the fertile soils on the shores of Vjosa give off. They graze with sheep, grow corn, tomatoes or beans. Generations after generations have lived here, but how long they can stay is uncertain.
Near the villages Pocem and Kalivac, large dams are planned which would flood the fields upstream and dry them out downstream of these contructions. But still the dams are not yet built. With the support of conservationists, locals filed a complaint in 2017 against the dam project of Pocem. Thankfully, the administrative Court in Tirana has found the submitted environmental impact assessment as well as the exclusion of the local population in the project as inadequate and stopped the construction for the time being. Now after two years, the case is waiting to be handled by the next court.
Albania is currently exploiting just over one third of its hydropower potential. This proportion is to be doubled by 2030. Permits have been granted nationwide for more than 500 new hydropower plants. The Albanian Ministry of Energy recognizes the criticism of conservationists on new hydroelectric power plants. Therefore, at the beginning 2019, they had begun to review existing and future hydroelectric concessions. This led to the termination of a considerable number of contracts. However, Albania’s hydropower potential will continue to be used to secure the country’s energy independence.
A dam kills the river forever
Citizens of Albania are fed up. Recently, a protest against Albanian hydropower projects started a chain of protests called Action weeks between July 6-16 in many Balkan countries. To protect the Vjosa from power plants, conservationists want to declare the river on its entire length as a National Park. However, the Albanian authorities are currently showing readiness to only protect the upper section of the river. On the other hand, the ecologically particularly valuable underflow with its wide riverbed and large gravel banks, which are hardly to be found in the rest of Europe, should remain unprotected. The dams of Pocem and Kalivac could then be built.
The European Wilderness Network, which includes many WILDRivers, supports the efforts of Riverwatch, Balkan Rivers, Balkan River Defence and AMBER to raise awareness for the destruction of Europe’s Blue Heart!
Please help our fight in saving the WILDRivers of Europe by donating here!