Vjosa National Park: Victory over hydropower on the doorstep

The last European wild rivers are under increasing threat, due to inadequate or complete lack of protection, traditional use or the pressure to produce green energy. However, the 25th September marks a day of success for one of the last pristine rivers in the Balkans. Ilir Meta, the President of Albania, officially spoke up to promote the establishment of a national park along the Vjosa river, one of the last wild rivers in Europe. In response, the Prime Minister Edi Rama also announced to the media his support to the Vjosa National Park and that the Kalivaç hydropower plans – a large dam project with a dam wall of approx. 50 meters in height – have been officially rejected by the Minister for Environment. 

Founding the first European wild river national park would be an absolute milestone in the fight for protecting the last free-flowing rivers of Europe, and without a doubt a great example of the positive impact of bottom-up initiatives and years of hard work.

Last of its kind

The Vjosa is one of Europe’s last wild rivers. Along its course of over 270 kilometres, the river, together with all of its tributaries is completely free-flowing, without any dams. It characterized by wild canyons, pristine gravel islands, oxbows and natural meanders. Its natural river dynamics provides a unique ecosystem for several animal and plant species. However, regardless of its unquestionable value, the naturalness of this river is under threat. Decades ago the Albanian government created motion-plans to build eight large dams on the course of the river and several smaller ones along its tributaries.

The building plans of the first bigger hydropower plant called Kalivaç dam date back to 1997. However, the construction of the controversial dam only started 10 years later and was postponed several times. For several years construction works were completely put on hold, leaving the status of the dam about 30% completed. The rollercoaster chain of events continued in 2017, when the Albanian government officially cancelled the contract for the Kalivaç dam. However, shortly after, with a reissued contract, the project officially reopened.

Vjosa WILDRiver Albania-20468.jpg - © European Wilderness Society CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Voices of the Vjosa

In 2018, The Bern Convention called on the Albanian government to properly evaluate the environmental impacts of the hydropower projects. All hydropower constructions stopped until the conduction of professional environmental impact assessments and other studies. Following in 2019, the Save the Blue Heart of Europe initiative launched their vision to create Europe’s first wild river national park. It didn’t take long for other individuals to speak up for the Vjosa river. In 2019-2020, 11 scientists embarked on a three-week long expedition to study the Vjosa river network. Their findings confirmed the multitude of threats dams would pose to the river ecosystem.

The case of Vjosa united the scientific community. One of the largest science petitions in freshwater ecology aimed to stop the hydropower constructions on the Vjosa . Overall 776 scientists from 46 countries signed the petition in early 2020.

When hard work pays off in conservation

On 24th September 2020, a roundtable discussion on the future of the Vjosa took place in Tirana. Aside from leading politicians, also Albanian and international scientists and ambassadors of several countries were present. During the discussion, scientists presented the evaluation of the Environmental Impact Assessment for the Kalivaç hydropower plant. This evaluation, conducted by over 50 freshwater experts found the report unacceptable. They therefore encouraged the Minister for Environment to reject issuing the necessary construction permit. In response, both the President and Prime Minister announced that “Our government has declared the Upper Vjosa a National Park. Our Ministry of Environment has officially refused to grant a permit for HPP projects in the lower Vjosa river.”

Stopping hydropower constructions for good and establishing a national park on the course of the Vjosa is a big step for the ecosystem of the Vjosa, local communities and conservationists. We are looking forward to following further discussions and ultimately, celebrating the proclamation of the Vjosa National Park, the first wild river national park in Europe.

“I am in favor of a national park. The electricity can be generated differently, mainly by solar and wind, so there is no need to destroy the Vjosa. However, we need to have more dialogue between the different stakeholders, including the governmental institutions, to discuss the future of this remarkable river.”

Ilir Meta
President of Albania

Also interesting: The campaign “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” focuses on protecting the wildest rivers in the Balkans. The campaign is carried out by the NGOs Riverwatch, EuroNatur and EcoAlbania, together with various partner organisations in the Balkan countries.

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