‘Vjosa river national park now’

© Gregor Subic

European NGOs trying to save Europe’s last big wild river in Albania from dam projects with the EU’s help

Last week, environmental organisations installed banners with the slogan “Vjosa river national park now” in front of famous monuments like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin, and the EU Commission in Brussels calling for the preservation of the Albanian Vjosa river. NGOs want the river to get a ‘national park’ status before a new administration comes in.  

According to them, a national park status for the Vjosa river would guarantee long-term legal protection for the natural reserve, global biodiversity and local culture. NGOs argue it would protect 300km of rivers and streams hosting over 1,100 species. Moreover, they expect it will attract international investments helping with its preservation and so multiply opportunities for the local community to earn a living. By making Vjosa an eco-tourist destination, they say locals could find work in many different areas whereas dams would only provide jobs in its construction phase. 

This visual action is part of a bigger campaign called the “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” campaign that advocates for the protection of Balkan Rivers which are said to be threatened by over 3,400 hydropower projects. Olsi Nika, director of EcoAlbania, states: ‘We purposefully chose these cultural heritage sites for this action as they are comparable to how we value the Vjosa in Albania. It is unimaginable to destroy these monuments in Europe’s capital cities, so why would we think differently about our pristine river that has been a part of our cultural history for thousands of years? Just ahead of the elections in Albania, we are demanding that our national government protect the Vjosa and that leading EU politicians support this initiative’. 

And indeed, this visual action happens in the context of up-coming elections in Albania, due to take place on 25 April. NGOs are hoping to benefit from the political attention to ensure a ‘national park’ status before another administration starts its term in April, because, for them, hydro power cannot mitigate or even compensate its impact on nature. ‘The impact is too great’.  

In September 2020, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama announced his intent to make the Vjosa wild river a national park. However, the government has not yet taken any clear steps towards this designation. In fact, Albanian authorities have been working on a nature park status (level 2 protection) that is insufficient for NGOs, who are proposing a national park status (level 4 protection). A nature park status would not guarantee the preservation of the natural integrity of the area, it would not protect it from dam constructions, said Nika (EcoAlbania).  

In Albania, the protection of the Vjosa river would mean investing great amounts of money which the government says they don’t have. Moreover, voices in Albania believe a dam would keep the banks from flooding again. NGOs, however, oppose that idea.

Thomas Waitz, Austrian MEP for the Greens, took a special interest in the Vjosa river. Last October, Waitz wrote an open letter to the Albanian PM Edi Rama calling for action. In addition, Waitz and other Green MEPs managed to influence the EU Committee on Foreign Affairs which voted to include the concerns over Vjosa in the Albanian Progress Report 2021. According to the draft report, the EU urges the Albanian government to stop hydropower development along the Vjosa River and ‘…to establish as soon as possible the Vjosa National Park, covering the whole length of the river.’ 

Last Monday (22th March 2021), Waitz co-hosted an event at Press Club Brussels and handed over a framed photo collage of the “Vjosa River National Park Now” slogan over EU capitals to the Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries. On that occasion, Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius gave a clear statement stressing that ‘we also need to support accession countries in preserving biodiversity because there, we still have things like free flowing rivers.’ Commissioner Sinkevičius also pointed out that there are funds to support Albania in that endeavour (the IPA III fund for the Western Balkan). He mentioned that the EU delegation to Albania are supportive of the project and ready to co-fund it as well as helping with know-how and background knowledge. “So the will is there and the money is there too” says Waitz.

The final objective for NGOs is a binding commitment to the national park status for the Vjosa river by the Albanian authorities, preferably prior to the elections. With that purpose in mind, MEP Thomas Waitz said he will talk with Commissioner for neighborhood and enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi. Waitz believes it makes more sense to invest in the protection of the river there than in another km of motorway. He also mentioned the plan of an airport in the Wetlands of Vjosa. He wishes to make sure that IPA III funds will be directed to the funding of train lines instead. Additionally, NGOs are asking the EU to make the protection of the river a condition for Albania’s accession to the EU. 

EcoAlbania (Albanian NGO) has been advocating for the protection of Balkan rivers for many years. They successfully mobilised local communities to protest along the natural reserve but also in their capital, Tirana. EcoAlbania could also count on the support of EuroNatur Foundation (German Foundation) and RiverWatch (Austrian NGO) to coordinate actions across Europe. Different artists (such as Leonardo DiCaprio) encouraged activists but also private firms like Patagonia expressed support: they released a six-minute film on 3 March, titled ‘Vjosa Forever’, asking citizens everywhere to show their support for a Vjosa Wild River National Park.