As Albanian parliamentary elections approach, the future of Europe’s only free-flowing river, the Vjosa, is placed at risk from hydroelectric development. Holly Miles reveals the dam(n)ing truth about the potential of European hydropower and what Patagonia are doing to raise awareness.
Situated in Albania, the Vjosa River is Europe’s largest wild river outside of Russia. Beginning in Greece as the Aoös, Vjosa then enters Albania, snaking through the Balklan mountains until it reaches the Adriatic Sea. It is the only free-flowing river left in Europe. Unparalleled in its ecological importance, Vjosa is formed of 300km of rivers and streams and is home to over 1,100 species of wildlife – many of them critically endangered – including 69 endemic fish species.
In September 2020, Albanian politicians publicly declared to stop plans to develop a hydro-powered dam, pledging to support the establishment of Vjosa as a wild river park – a pivotal development that would make Vjosa the site of Europe’s first ever wild river National Park. However, despite recent research suggesting that 94% of Albanian citizens are in favour of establishing the Vjosa river as a national park, it seems that compromises are being made out of the public eye, with plans development plans progressing.
The Dam(n)ing Truth about Hydroelectric Power in Europe:
- Dams devastate ecosystems:
Dams and river-draining diversions destroy ecosystems and displace the people that live within them. Banks and political leaders promote hydroelectric projects as ‘clean, green’ energy, despite developments sending species to extinction and directing global displacement.
- Protected areas are placed at risk:
6,409 – equalling 21% – of hydropower plants in Europe are located in ‘protected’ areas. In the Balkans, this percentage is even more extreme. 45% are planned or under construction in protected areas. This includes 245 hydropower plants in national parks 567 in Natura 2000 sites.
- Dams diminish biodiversity:
Scientists predict that, if projected dams are built in the Balklans, 49 species may be pushed to the point of extinction. This equals around 10% of all freshwater fish species in Europe. The number of migratory fish species in Europe has already reduced by 93% since 1970.
- Small dam, big problems:
Hydropower development is booming in most regions of Europe, with a total of 30,172 plants in the region. These are mostly smaller hydropower plants, with less than 10 megawatt installed capacity. In the Balkans, 92% of the planned projects have an installed capacity of less than 10 Megawatt. Smaller dams are numerous, and therefore cause greater ecological destruction as they disrupt river continuity.
- The extent of this damage is global:
Globally, there are 50,000 mega dams and millions of smaller developments. It is estimated that 40-80 million people have lost their homes due to hydropower plants, whilst 500-750 million people suffer from the repercussions of dam developments. Total evaporation from reservoirs and impoundments equals 7% of the total water consumption of humans worldwide. It is estimated that reservoirs already contribute to 1.3% of annual human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
Political Support hinges upon recent Parliamentary Elections
The 25th of April 2021 saw Albania’s highly anticipated parliamentary elections. Citizens, activists, conservationists, scientists and artists have fought for over 10 years against a tirade of planned hydropower projects in the Balkans. Now they are demanding political support and asking people everywhere to stand in solidarity to protect the Vjosa river from development. Establishment of the Vjosa as a national park would protect the river forever. Albanian and international nature conservation groups – including EcoAlbania, RiverWatch and EuroNatur – are calling on the public and political leaders to protect the future of the Vjosa by making the wild river national park a major priority for any winning party.
Ulrich Eichelmann, CEO of Riverwatch, says “The Vjosa miraculously survived the decades of destruction in Europe; it´s a gift to all of us. And it is, therefore, not only an Albanian responsibility to protect it, but also a European responsibility. In support of the Vjosa national park, he declares “This wild river national park would be an immense achievement for conservation efforts in Europe, and, at an EU level, it will make a real and significant contribution to the EU Biodiversity Strategy and the EU Green Deal”.
How are Patagonia Raising Awareness?
In response to the threats that Vjosa is facing, Patagonia have launched a short documentary-film, ‘Vjosa Forever’. The production asks concerned citizens everywhere to show their support for a Vjosa wild river national park and hopes to bring international attention to the environmental disaster that could ensue if it remains unprotected.
‘Vjosa Forever’ follows Patagonia’s Blue Heart campaign, which depicted the fight to protect the wild rivers of the Balkans – the ‘Blue Heart’ of Europe – from 3,400 proposed hydropower projects. Within the Blue Heart region, the Vjosa is the largest and most untamed river system.
In response to proposed development Ryan Gellert, CEO of Patagonia Works states “Grassroots activism, supported by legal action, have worked to get this historic decision on the table”. In a message of optimism, he elaborates, “now is the time for Albanian politicians to step up. They will be doing something that’s never been done before and protecting this last, pristine river system, forever”.
“This is a moment for all Albanian citizens to feel real pride”, says Besjana Guri, Communication Officer of EcoAlbania. “Not only are we protecting our country, our culture and our future, but, in the Vjosa, we have something of precious beauty that is unparalleled in Europe”.
Feel inspired to support the Vjosa river national park? Follow the links below or take to Twitter to support #VjosaNationalParkNow.
Click here to watch Patagonia’s ‘Vjosa Forever’.
Click here to learn more about Patagonia’s Blue Heart campaign.
Holly Miles is News and Politics Editor of WILD Magazine and is in her third year of studying English Literature at the University of York.