There is a river of unprecedented importance in Europe. It’s one that could make history for being the first river on the continent to be declared as a national park from its source all the way to the sea, shielding it from the hydropower projects in the surrounding Balkans area that are jeopardizing the delicate integrity of natural water networks and their surrounding wildlife.
That river is the Vjosa, an almost 260-kilometer stretch of crystal-clear water which flows unchecked from the mountains in Greece through Albania into the Adriatic Sea and sustains thousands of different species, some of which have yet to even be discovered. In its first 70 kilometers in Greece the river is known as Aoos. The free-flowing waters and tributaries, along with its dazzling variety of landmarks, such as waterfalls and canyons, make the Vjosa one of the largest and most naturally-preserved wild rivers in Europe.
Yet it faces an uncertain future. Without protection, there’s still a very real risk that Europe’s last untamed river – and the countless species it is home to – could be lost forever. Pushing for the establishment of the Vjosa as a national park has therefore been a top priority for ecologists and conservationists such as Ulrich Eichelmann, who heads the river protection society, Riverwatch.
Achieving national park status is “the best protection you can get”, says Eichelmann. “We’re speaking about 350 kilometers of the river and its tributaries that we could protect with one hit, with one catch, and that is why we call it the first wild river national park in Europe.”
Worth fighting for
For more than a decade, people have been battling against the rise of dams in the Balkans, which have appeared along waterways across the region at an unparalleled rate. This ‘boom’ in both dam construction and planning is the reason why many eyes are now turning to the Vjosa River, which remains untouched and outside of the grasp of hydropower – for now.
Riverwatch is one of several groups campaigning for the Vjosa to be established as a national park. Though this has been a key goal for the people who live around the river and conservationists for some time, the proposal gained particular traction and attention in September 2020, when Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama publicly committed to creating the national park. What’s more, an estimated 94% of the population in Albania were recently revealed to be in favor of the idea, and the European Parliament also officially expressed their support.
On World Water Day, March 22, 2021, a #VjosaNationalParkNow campaign visual action involved installing banners at iconic monuments in Europe, including the Eiffel Tower, demanding the Vjosa become a national park. Various groups also collaborated with the clothing brand Patagonia to produce a short film highlighting the importance of protecting the Vjosa, which has been widely shared on social media.
“The message is that this is not just an Albanian issue to save this river, but a European-wide [issue]… The idea is to get maximum outreach to push the political leaders in Albania and in the European Commission to agree on the national park,” says Eichelmann.
Not as it seems
The European Parliament did endorse and urge the Albanian government to establish the Vjosa River as a national park in its entirety. However, the future of the Vjosa River depends heavily on the winner of Albania’s federal elections on April 25—Edi Rama. Rama, who was elected for a third term in a row, has stopped short of endorsing the Vjosa as national park, instead claiming that it already has enough protection as a nature park.
“While the titles ‘nature park’ and ‘national park’ sound very similar, they couldn’t be more different in terms of the level of protection they offer,” explains Olsi Nika from EcoAlbania, a local environmental NGO spearheading efforts in Albania. “Only a national park can fully and legally protect this beautiful ecosystem from future development.”
Since Rama has not formally committed to protecting the Vjosa from dams and other threats, it will be harder to hold him accountable for what happens to it.
“Without this accountability, there’s nothing to stop his political party from exploiting the Vjosa, making the Vjosa’s chance at being a national park futile, after all,” explains Eichelmann.
“We have this one shot for the Vjosa,” he adds. “Within this whole ‘Blue Heart’ river system,” – which refers to the unique intact waters and high biodiversity of the Balkans – “the Vjosa is something that could be destroyed with one dam.”
A new threat
Without political will from Rama and other political leaders in Albania, the Vjosa will continue to be threatened. In fact, shortly before Albania’s federal elections, Shell announced that it will start conducting an exploration (or geophysical) survey for oil and gas in a large area of south Albania, including Vjosa valley, to map potential oil and gas reserves.
[Update 5.11.21: An earlier version of this story stated that Shell was exploring the Vjosa Valley for oil and gas, and if found, could begin drilling in autumn of 2021. After this story was published, Shell reached out to Global Wildlife Conservation to share the following statement: “The Vjosa River is a natural site of special importance. We will never drill for hydrocarbons in the Vjosa Valley, or in the protected central zone of the nearby Zagoria Natural Park. In agreement with the government, our survey of these areas is to help fully understand the geology which extends across a wide region of Southern Albania, to map any potential oil and gas reserves.”
Environmentalists, however, are assessing the potential effects of drilling for oil and gas anywhere in the region–including outside of Vjosa valley–on the Vjosa River and valley.]
But that hasn’t stopped groups and individuals from campaigning to save the Vjosa. They have been instrumental in shining a spotlight on one of the world’s most ecologically important rivers – as well as those who pose a threat to its very survival – and they are not giving up yet.
“The new government must prioritize the protection of Albania’s precious environment, starting with the Vjosa,” says Eichelmann. “Without appropriate protection, the area will be ‘eaten up’ by uncontrolled expansion of tourist resorts in the delta region, dams in the middle and oil drilling in the upper part of the river. That’s why we will continue this fight until the Vjosa is designated as a national park.”