Magnificent and free, the Vjosa flows in bends and turns towards the Adriatic. But Albanian environmentalists and locals alike fear the dam and demand unique protection for what is said to be “one of the last wild rivers in Europe”.
Albanian authorities have vowed not to touch the untamed waterway with infrastructure, valued for its invaluable biodiversity, which originates in Greece before crossing Albania from east to west for 200 kilometers.
Fans of a river that has narrow gorges, but whose bed can be up to two kilometers wide, do not believe it.
They believe the government’s “protected area” status will not be enough to protect Vjosa from the dams and hydropower plants that Albania abounds in, as in the rest of the Balkans. Stars like Leonardo DiCaprio support their fight.
Residents of the southern Kalivac region have been living for years under the threat of a project that would drown their land and that they do not want at any cost.
“La Vjosa is vital for us, for our country, for our food,” Idajet Zotaj, 60, told AFP. “Dams would destroy all biodiversity and fishing for thousands of people.”
Arjan Zeqaj, 40, worked in Greece for a long time before returning to invest with his brother in his house by the river. “La Vjosa is my greatest love because my life is here, my childhood is here, my youth is here.”
Its restaurant offers spectacular views of the green meanders of water that roam the spacious gravel bed and islets, in the middle of the mountains.
– Damocles –
When the dam was built, water would come to its terrace. “I would have to go back abroad,” he adds.
Environmentalists won in the fall when the environment ministry under pressure refused to give the green light to Ayen-Albu, a Turkish-Albanian joint venture selected to build a 50-meter-high dam.
But she sued and the decision that is pending is the “sword of Damocles” that everyone fears.
“We were born here, we grew up here, we don’t want Vjosa to be touched,” Mezin Zaim Zotaj, 86, told AFP, surrounded by his three sheep grazing water in a village in Anëvjosë. “Where are we going, where are we going to live?”
Along with EcoAlbania and international NGOs such as RiverWatch and EuroNatura, residents are demanding that Vjosa and its tributaries – which are threatened by more than forty hydroelectric projects – become a “national park”.
This status, which meets the criteria of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), “would ban any development, dams, airports and other major projects harmful to the environment in the long run,” said Besjana Guri, EcoAlbania.
La Vjosa is still largely unexplored, but experts have identified about 1,200 species, about 40 of which are on the IUCN’s red list of endangered species, such as the European eel, otter or Egyptian soup.
“The national park is a little too much,” Prime Minister Edi Rama replied, telling AFP that this categorization, which in his eyes was restrictive, would undermine “the activity of tens of thousands of people.”
False, say NGOs, according to which traditional and sustainable agriculture would be favored and that such a label would develop ecotourism.
– Kayaking and rafting –
Visitors come in small groups to kayak or raft in unspoiled nature, says Albiona Muçoimaj, a tourism expert.
With “industrialization and dams, foreign tourists would lose interest in Vjosa and the wild parts of Albania in general.”
For environmentalists, the “protected area” advocated by the government will protect nothing at all.
As proof, they want an airport project in the Vjose delta itself, an area of lagoons and wetlands that are still “protected” where more than 200 species of birds live. The government justifies the infrastructure, entrusted to a Turkish-Swiss consortium, by the need to develop tourism revenues in a poor country where the average salary is around 420 euros.
Albania is committed to the development of solar and wind power, but is currently completely dependent on hydropower.
There are debates around the world between those who want to protect the planet for future generations and those who explain that we must feed people through economic development.
But as freshwater habitats are degrading everywhere, Vjosa represents a unique chance in Europe to protect these ecosystems, Ulrich Eichelmann of RiverWatch told AFP. The national park, the “crown of protection,” would be the only one to attract international funding, he continues.
Mezin Zaim Zotaj is in Anevjos. Of her seven children, four live abroad, three in the city. “I miss them. If Vjosa becomes a national park, everyone will come back here to build their future at home.”