Vjosa: Political game with the future of Europe´s last wild river

++ 94 % of Albanians in favour of establishing Vjosa National Park ++ IUCN confirms the potential of Vjosa River for becoming a National Park ++ Albanian Environmental Minister has opposing plans ++

<p> </p><p> </p><p> </p><p>                Vjosa River in Albania</p><p> </p><p> </p><p> </p>

Contrary to the announcement of Albania´s Prime Minister Edi Rama, the Minister for Environment does not plan a national park and no protection status at all for the most valuable river stretches like this one near Poçem.

© Gernot Kunz
<p> </p><p> </p><p> </p><p>                Vjosa River in Albania</p><p> </p><p> </p><p> </p>

The IUCN confirms that the Vjosa qualifies for designation as a national park. Will the Albanian government follow their recommendation? 

© Gregor Subic

Tirana, Radolfzell, Vienna. Today, EcoAlbania, Riverwatch and EuroNatur informed the public about the latest developments regarding the Vjosa.

On September 25th, Albania´s Prime Minister Edi Rama announced on Twitter: “Our government has declared the upper Vjosa a National Park. Our Ministry of Environment has officially refused to give permission for HPP projects in the lower Vjosa that will be integrated with the Park!”
This message was highly welcomed by many stakeholders such as Members of European Parliament, the Energy Community, nature conservation organizations, and even the world-famous actor Leonardo DiCaprio. However, three months later, the Prime Minister´s announcement appears to be an empty promise. Last week, the National Agency of Protected Areas (NAPA) – an agency under the Minister for Tourism and Environment – presented their plans for the Vjosa. Not a word has been said about a national park and no protection status at all is foreseen for the most valuable stretches of the river, which are threatened by dam plans. “The reality contradicts the statement of our Prime Minister. Currently, it looks like the people of Albania are being cheated. The future of the Vjosa is also about the credibility of Edi Rama and his government”, says Olsi Nika, Director of EcoAlbania.

Interestingly, the vast majority of Albanians back the Prime Minister’s announcement from September to establish a national park and to drop the dam plans. According to a public opinion poll conducted by IDRA Poll (a company which also carries out opinion-polls for political parties in Albania) in December, 94 percent of Albanians are in favor of a Vjosa National Park on the entire length of the river. The main motives for this widely shared opinion are “to protect the country´s natural beauties and the landscape” and to have “better opportunities for touristic developments” in the region.
At the same time, 78 percent of the respondents oppose the construction of dams on the Vjosa (14% neutral, 8% in favor of dams,). “This is a clear message: the people of Albania want a national park and no dams on the Vjosa, and the government should listen to them”, concludes Olsi Nika from Eco Albania.

IUCN – potential for a National Park
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a global authority on protection of nature, recognizes the international importance of Vjosa River’s outstanding natural values. A draft study commissioned by IUCN shows the potential of the Vjosa River for becoming a National Park. The study is expected to be published in early 2021 and includes a vision and a road map for the proper designation of the Vjosa River. The proposed protection area also includes its middle section in Albania, which is key to the river’s integrity and long-term protection of this unique and exceptional transboundary river ecosystem.

Prime Minister Rama´s words and the reality
However, every day it becomes more evident, that the Albanian government, particularly the Minister for Environment Blendi Klosi and the National Agency of Protected Areas (NAPA), is heading in the opposite direction. Contrary to the Prime Minister´s earlier announcement, there are no plans to create a national park along the Vjosa. Instead, only a “Protected Landscape” category is foreseen for the upper part of the Vjosa, while no protection at all is planned downstream from Tepelena (Memalija bridge). This plan is not only excluding the most valuable parts of the river system, but would also leave the area unprotected in which the Kalivaç and Poçem dams are foreseen.
“The plans that were presented by NAPA last week are actually an attempt to keep the door open for the Kalivaç and Poçem hydropower projects. They are a slap in the face of everyone who is in favor of the Vjosa, a slap in the face of the Albanian people, scientists and those who trust in the promises of the Prime Minister” says Ulrich Eichelmann, CEO of Riverwatch, who has been working on the Vjosa River protection campaign for years.

EuroNatur representative Annette Spangenberg adds: “Any other category for the Vjosa except the National Park is not appropriate as it underestimates the nature conservation values of this unique ecosystem. For this reason, the current process within NAPA has to stop. We call on Prime Minister Rama to keep his promise and to support the declaration of a National Park along the Vjosa. The current process undertaken by NAPA is hasty, non-transparent and incomplete. Therefore, Minister Klosi should stop it and start a new process that fully takes into consideration the natural values of the Vjosa which are outstanding and clearly of European importance.

The future of Europe´s unique river system could also become an issue in the Albanian federal elections on April 25th. “We want to know which party, which political leader supports the Vjosa National Park and who doesn’t. With the political will and international support, Europe´s 1st Wild River National Park could be inaugurated by the end of 2022”, the organizations conclude.


Background information:

  • Recording of today’s online press conference available HERE
  • The Vjosa is the last wild river in Europe. The Albanian government plans to build several dams, two of which are planned in its middle course. The alternative vision is the creation of the first Wild River National Park in Europe, which was previously introduced by organizations, part of the campaign to protect the Vjosa.
  • The "Save the Blue Heart of Europe" campaign aims to protect rivers of high natural value in the Balkans, which are threatened by over 3,400 hydropower projects. The campaign is coordinated by the international NGOs Riverwatch and EuroNatur and is implemented jointly with partner organisations in the Balkan countries. The local partner in Albania is EcoAlbania. For more information: https://balkanrivers.net/


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