Hydropower threatens Vjosa River

Dams and hydropower plants threaten Vjosa River
Vjosa river in Albania. Photo: Pixabay D. Stanley

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The environmental movement in Albania is fighting against government plans to build a number of dams in the river Vjosa. It flows from Greece through southern Albania to the Adriatic Sea and is 272 kilometres long. The dams will generate electricity with the help of hydropower plants, but threaten the Vjosa river. It is a struggle between nature and economic development. Albania is not a European Member State. In the European Union many dams are removed to comply to the Water Framework Directive.

Europe’s rivers have at least 1.2 million instream barriers, expect researchers from Amber, a large collaborative Horizon 2020 project, coordinated by Swansea University. Thousands of dams, but also a large network of low-head structures such as weirs, culverts, fords, sluices and ramps are now mapped. Barriers are considered to hamper achieving a good ecological status according to the Water Framework Directive and fish migration.

Action

Environmental activists have managed to gain international attention for their struggle, for example in the European Parliament. Even Leonardo DiCaprio has expressed his support on Twitter. In the capital Tirana, lawyer Elvana Tivari Marataj confirms his complaint that the government never informed the citizens, although this is required by Albanian law. And on top of that. “There has been no proper process of planning and no study of how the plans fit into the sustainable development of the country, into agriculture, tourism and the lives of the people living along the river”, said the lawyer to the Dutch television station NOS.

Lawsuit

Together with a group of other lawyers, Tivari filed a lawsuit against the state on behalf of dozens of residents of the Vjosa river basin. They won the case in the first instance. The construction work has now stopped. But the state has lodged an appeal. “We now await the verdict of the Supreme Court”, stated Tivari.

Consequences for the ecosystem

The environmental organisation EcoAlbania is also a party in the lawsuit. It is particularly concerned about the negative impact on the river’s ecosystem. Scientists have found more than a hundred animal species that do not live anywhere else in Albania. In total, 1100 species live there. So, damage to people and the environment, but on the other hand, hydropower is a sustainable and relatively cheap way to generate electricity. This is not unimportant for a poor country like Albania.

Alternative

Activist Besjana Guri sees it as a misconception that hydropower plants are clean. “The Vjosa is the last river in Europe that can still flow freely. The damage they do to the environment is enormous,” she says. “It is cheap, but so would be solar energy in Albania. We have more than 300 days of sunshine a year.”

Balance

Guri is not totally against hydropower. The government should only try to find a balance, says Guri: “You have sun, you have wind. You can use different alternatives. From the government’s perspective, that would be the best strategy. Diversify the sources and then you keep a few rivers free, you preserve them and you preserve this unique ecosystem. You cannot destroy everything for the sake of hydropower.”

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