HA 022: Vjosa

Hydropower threatens one of Europe's last remaining wild rivers

Words and images by Nick St. Oegger | Website | Instagram

The Vjosa is one of Europe’s last remaining wild rivers, running free and unobstructed from its origins in Greece through southern Albania to the Adriatic Sea. The river’s natural flow maintains a pristine biosphere that is home to numerous plant and animal species, some of which scientists haven’t seen in central Europe for decades, while new species are being found with every exploration downstream.

The Vjosa near the Greek- Albanian border. Despite its willingness to declare the river a national park in 2015, the Albanian government issued a contract to build a new hydropower dam at Poçem. The European Parliament has demanded the government put a stop to plans for hydropower on the Vjosa, noting the environmental damage it would cause.

The river also holds important economic and cultural value for communities along its banks, which formed the backbone of Albania’s agricultural industry during communism but have seen widespread poverty and depopulation in recent decades. The Vjosa has inspired songs, poetry, legends and is even a popular name for newborn girls.

Fisherman’s shelter constructed between two communist-era bunkers in the Vjosa delta. Fishing along the river plays an important part in the local economy, and has already been negatively impacted by unregulated practices such as dynamiting. Furthermore, damming the Vjosa would be detrimental for species
Yanni, returning across the Vjosa from a search for scraps of iron around Përmet. Economic opportunities are limited in areas along the Vjosa, due to lack of development, forcing many people to find work abroad or in the capital, Tirana.

In spite of its importance, the Vjosa is facing numerous environmental threats including plans for multiple hydropower dams, exploratory oil drilling by Shell and construction of an international airport near its protected delta region. Now, the river and its tributaries have become the focal point and inspiration of a wider environmental protection movement in the Balkans, where over 3,000 dams are currently planned or under construction. These projects have the potential to cause widespread damage to the region’s largely wild ecosystems and displace entire communities.

Dam construction site, near Kalivaç. The project began in 2007 as a collaboration between Deutsche Bank and Italian businessman, Francesco Becchetti, but was stalled for several years after charges of fraud and money laundering were brought against Becchetti. He has denied these charges. The Albanian government nullified the contract and a new one was awarded to Turkish firm Ayen energy, who also hold the contract for the Poçem dam.

Despite aspirations of joining the European Union, the Albanian government has ignored calls to halt the construction of dams on the Vjosa and its tributaries, which would qualify as a protected area under EU law. Meanwhile, an international group of scientists and activists have teamed up with local communities to apply mounting pressure through legal action and involvement of high-profile celebrities with the ultimate goal of declaring the length of the Vjosa a fully protected Wild River National Park, the first of its kind.

Gernot Kunz, a Macro Entomologist from the University of Vienna, photographs insects in the riverbed of the Shushica river in southern Albania. The Shushica is a largely unexplored tributary of the Vjosa river, where scientists have found new species of wildlife, or species that have gone extinct elsewhere in Europe.
A car returning from farmland in Kuta, near the proposed dam at Poçem. The large reservoir created by the dam would permanently flood agricultural land in the area, which locals have worked and relied on for generations.
The site of a proposed large hydropower dam on the Vjosa river, near the village of Poçem. A group of local and international acitivists and scientists successfully sued the Albanian government in 2017, blocking construction of the dam due to a shoddy environmental impact report and lack of public consultation. The case has since been tied up in appeals.
Haxhi, a pensioner in Kuta. Haxhi worked in a cooperative setup to promote agricultural reforms during the start of communism in the 1950s and 1960s. The cooperatives led villages on the Vjosa to become an important part of the country’s agricultural economy.
Përmet is a cultural hub in southern Albania well-regarded for its traditional music, art and slow-food practices. The Vjosa is integral to plans for growing the area’s tourism industry, with the river seen as an important draw for rafting and kayaking excursions.
“Without our land, we have nothing.” Ylli and her family raise sheep and grow crops on land that would be flooded by a reservoir. There are few non-agricultural jobs in Kuta, meaning locals could have to relocate from lands their families have lived and worked on for generations.
Villagers bringing their cattle home in Kalivaç. Many locals were employed in the construction of a nearby hydropower project, which has since been stalled. However, some locals still provide security services for the site, despite not being paid for several years.
Brataj, a village on the Shushica river in southern Albania. The lives of villagers are intertwined with the nearby river, which they still use for agriculture, drinking water for their herds, fishing and swimming.
Rakip, a pensioner, looks out over the threatened Bënça river valley. Most of the village’s young population has left to work in nearby Tepelenë or the capital Tirana, leaving the older generation to work the area’s agricultural fields.
Bridge over the Vjosa at Novoselë, near the delta. Dams would increase riverbank erosion in downstream areas, meaning the already flood-prone delta region could see increasingly destructive flooding events in the future.