Europe's Unknown Wild Jewel
The Vjosa River in Albania is one of Europe’s last living wild rivers. Along its entire course of over 270 kilometers it is untamed and free flowing and characterized by beautiful canyons, braided river sections, islands, oxbows and meandering stretches. In some areas the riverbed expands over more than 2 km in width. However, what makes this river really outstanding internationally is the fact, that almost all its tributaries are free-flowing and intact as well, creating a living rivers network that is without par in Europe.
The main source of the Vjosa River is in Greek territory near the village of Vouvoussa (the ancient name of Vjosa). On its first 80 kilometres the river flows through Greece and is named Aoos. In Albania it turns into Vjosa. The meandering lower part opens up into a valley with extensive wetlands, providing habitats for spawning fish, migratory birds and others. Finally, it drains into the sea just north of the Narta lagoon – one of the biggest and ecologically richest lagoons of Albanian and as such designated as Managed Nature Reserve. The Vjosa is draining a total area of 6,700 km² in Albania and Greece and discharges an average of 204 m³/s into the Adriatic Sea.
The Vjosa River in Albania is of pan-European or even global importance. It represents one of the last intact large river systems in Europe, hosting all different types of ecosystems: from the narrow gorges in the upper part to the wide braided river sections in the middle part to the near natural delta at the Adriatic Sea. Scientific knowledge about the Vjosa and its biodiversity or curcial physical processes such as sediment transport or groundwater systems is very limited. It is one of the least explored rivers in Europe: we might know more about the biodiversity of river systems in South America or Asia than we do about the Vjosa. Very few studies are at hand so far. But these few existing studies underscore the importance of the river valley as Albania’s biodiversity hotspot providing ideal aquatic habitats for numerous species.
The free flowing Vjosa is of outstanding importance for various migratory fish species, i.e. the critically endangered European eel Anguilla anguilla as well as sub-endemic fish species like the Ohrid loach (Cobitis ohridana) and the Pindus stone loach (Oxynoemacheilus pindus). In terms of bird populations, the area provides breeding ground for Stone curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus), Little ringed plover (Charadrius dubius) and others, foraging ground for the Little tern (Sterna albifrons), Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus), and the Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni), as well as an important habitat for the near threatened otter (Lutra lutra). Due to the lack of knowledge, the status of some species is unclear, for example the Little tern (Sterna albifrons), which is regularly seen in the Poçem area and below, but nesting sites have not been recorded yet. The undisturbed morphodynamic processes with its enormous sediment shift lead to a constant natural regeneration of these habitats, as well as to a lateral erosion, producing large-scale, steep riverbanks. These provide breeding grounds for thousands of Sand martins (Riparia riparia), for Kingfishers (Alcedo atthis), and Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster).
The flora of the Vjosa ecosystem is also impressive. The uppermost river section hosts a variety of endangered endemic plant species, such as the endangered Solenanthus albanicus. The lower valley is characterized by mixed Oak forests (Qurecus sp.) and Strawberry trees (Arbutus andrachne); for the latter the Vjosa valley represents the only habitat in the country. This braided river system is characterized by large gravel banks with pioneer vegetation, islands, side arms, oxbows, ponds, and alluvial forests with Platanus orientalis, Willows (Salix spp.).
In order to bridge the knowledge gap, about 30 scientists from 4 countries and various expertise participated in one week of research in April 2017 on the previously almost unexplored Vjosa river in Albania – in the area of the planned Poçem dam. All experts were amazed by the complexity and sheer size of the river system and every expertise found something at the Vjosa – species, habitat types, dynamic river processes – that has been long lost on all regulated rivers in central Europe. An extensive, 3-year research program is in preparations. Watch the video about the preliminary research week:
Social and Cultural Values
Social and Cultural Values
The Vjosa River has a special and crucial place in the daily lives of the people that live along its banks. Its terraces provide the villages with fertile land for agricultural activities such as crop production and livestock farming. The abundance and diversity of fish is vital for the economy and the well-being of local fishermen. Recreational tourism on the Vjosa and its tributaries is ever-increasing, particularly in recent years in which enthusiasts have started to enjoy activities such as rafting, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, etc.
Many small-scale businesses and new emerging eco-tourism companies have based their existence on the free-flowing waters of the Vjosa. Moreover, the Vjosa and its crystal-clear water have had an impact on the hearts of Albanians and their cultural values. Naming newly-born girls after the Vjosa continues to be very popular among Albanian parents since the name stands for the beauty of the river and its untouched nature.
The biggest threat for rivers is hydropower. While the Vjosa serves as border for many protected areas (3 of which are designated as National Park, IUCN category II), the river itself is without a special protection status, resulting in growing pressure from human impact. The absence of an integrated, bilateral management plan for the entire river basin has given investors the golden opportunity to engage in a rapid construction "boom" of hydropower in the valley. 38 HPPs are forseen in the entire Vjosa catchment, 6 of which are projected on the Greek side of the catchment, one is already in operation - the Pigai large Dam. On Albanian territory, 31 dams are projected in the Vjosa catchment: along the Vjosa main channel, the Ministry of Energy intends to build 8 dams, 23 additional HPPs on her tributaries, 4 of which are already finished while another 4 are currently under construction (find list here). The construction of these dams – or of just a single one of them - would destroy the incredible ecological value of the Vjosa River. It would alter its hydrological regime entirely and inhibit its natural sediment transport - the elementary force which shapes the highly dynamic morphological processes.
The Poçem Project
The most urgent dam case is the Poçem HPP on the Vjosa. In March 2016, the Albanian government has given a concession to a union of two Turkish companies "Ayen Enerji Şirketi Anonymous" and "Çinar-San Hafriyat Nakliyat Turizm Insaat San Ve Tic Ltd.Sti" to build a large dam on the Vjosa. The project “Poçem” features a 23-25 meter high dam that would not only directly affect one of the most valuable sections of the Vjosa due to flooding, it would also have serious downstream effects.
Opposition against this project has been fierce from the start. Residents, environmentalists, scientists, local administrator and EU representatives have all criticized the EIA for this project, which is not even worth the paper. 60 percent of the EIA text was simply copy-pasted from other documents and refers in part to completely different geographical regions. Flora and fauna were not surveyed whatsoever and data on rare species was not collected; hydrological, morphological and ecological processes were not evaluated and potential long-term effects of the project were not discussed.
Even the EU criticized the project: in its statement on the Enlargement report in April 2016, the European parliament called upon the Albanian government „… to control the development of hydropower plants in environmentally sensitive areas such as around Vjosa River as well as in protected areas....”, to adjust the quality of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) to EU standards and to better inform and include the public in the planning procedure.
Facts & Figures
Dam height: 23-25m
Dam length: 200m
Reservoir size: 23,5 km2 of submerged area
Reservoir volume: 295 million m3
Capacity/ annual output: 102.2 MW/ 366.8 GWh
Costs: 160.1 million €
On the basis of the utterly inadequate EIA as well as a highly deficient public consultation process, the nature conservation organisations EcoAlbania, Riverwatch and EuroNatur, as well as 38 affected residents filed a lawsuit against “Poçem” on the Vjosa with the Albanian Administrative Court in December 2016 - the first-ever environmental lawsuit in Albania. On May 2, 2017, the Court decided in favour of the free-flowing Vjosa and against the against the construction of the projected hydropower plant “Poçem” - a big win for our campaign and for nature conservation in general. However, the Albanian Ministry of Environment and the Turkish construction company have appealed the decision. If necessary, we are prepared to take this case all the way to Supreme Court. In addition, an official complaint was submitted to the Bern Convention standing committee. The process is ongoing.
The first hydropower plant that entered the implementation process is the Kalivaç project close to the city of Tepelena. The concession of the Kalivaç dam was given in 1997 but the construction was started 10 years later and it was halted several times. Initially, the main source of funding was the Italian Becchetti Group and the Deutsche Bank. Construction works are on hold (which they have been for the past 5 years), and the level of completion is still only at 30%. As a result, the river remains uninterrupted until today.
In May 2017, after 20 years of construction postponements, the Albanian government decided to cancel the contract for the unfinished hydropower project Kalivaç on the Vjosa river in Albania, only to reopen the procedures for re-issuing the concession shortly after. The Albanian government is determined to go through with this project. We are considering legal actions.
Aoos - Projects in Greece
The first interference with the Aoos river was the construction of the Pigai HPP, very close to the Aoos’ main source, in 1984. Ap- proximately 100 million m3 of wa- ter is retained annually and sup- plies the lake of Aoos' Hydroelec- tric Station.
There are new plans to deviate an- other 70 million m3 annually from Arkudoreuma, the main tributary of the Aoos River. This deviation is twofold: 50 million m3/year will be channeled from Pigai reservoir to Ioannina Lake and then released into the Kalamas River and anoth- er 20 million m3/year will be di- verted through the Pigai reservoir into the Metsovitikos River. 4 HPPs are planned along the first diversion and another 2 along the second. So in total, 6 new HPPs are planned, while one is already built: the large HPP of Pigai.
Projects on Vjosa tributaries
Vjosa‘s tributaries are not to be spared either. In total, 23 HPPs are projected along all of Vjosa’s tributaries. Constructions of 4 of them have already started.
Six HPPs are to be built along the Langarica River, two of which have already been finished while one is under construction. Three HPPs are located inside the “Hotova Fir National Park”. Contractor is the Austrian company ENSO Hydro. The Langarica is characterized by an impressive canyon 7 kilometer in length and 80 meter in depth, which was designated as natural monument in the 1970s. Due to its low water temperature and its river bed rich in gravel, the Langarica serves as spawning ground for many fish species. Furthermore, 8 thermal springs are located along the river, attracting hundreds of tourists each year. The construction of the third hydropower plant caused the springs to temporarily run dry in the beginning of October 2014. As a result, dozens of people took to the streets in Tirana demanding a stop to construction. Though the Minister of the Environment promised to appoint a working group as a reaction to the protest, constructions were continued.
Along the Bënça River, another tributary of the Vjosa, 5 HPPs are projected. Two of them are already under construction. Contractor is the Albanian company FERRAR for the “Bënçë-Tepelenë” SHPP while the Italian company “Radici Energy” owns the concession for the the SHPP “Bënçë e sipërme” in the upper valley.
The Shushica River is the second largest tributary of the Vjosa after Drinos. 2 HPPs are planned along its upper course closed to Smokthina. While there are plans of construction in the small tributaries of the Drinos river like Kardhiqi, Picari etc.
The Vjosa is a European treasure. Its greatest value lies in its uncompromised intactness. The dams would destroy this unique ecosystem and its high potential for sustainable nature tourism in the future.
Our vision - Vjosa National Park
Our vision - Vjosa National Park
The Vjosa and its tributaries are without par in Europe. There is no river network like this left on the continent. Thus, this river landscape needs to be protected by the highest possible nature protection category – a national park according to the standards of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Together with the local community, scientists and the support from all over Albania, we want to make it happen. It shall be preserved for the benefit of nature but also for the people of the Vjosa valley and their potential for sustainable socio-economic development. However, a national park can only truly exist if it kept free from dams. Industries such as eco-tourism or non-intensive agriculture can be an effective alternative for sustainable economic development of local communities. In future, thousands of tourists from all over Europe will come to visit this last wild river.
- The untouched Vjosa River is an ecosystem without par in Europe. It is one of the last natural, wild rivers on the entire continent.
- Scientifically, this river is almost like a “blank page”. The knowledge about its biodiversity, hydrology and sediment transport is very limited.
- Dam projects along the Vjosa and its tributaries are the river´s major threat, putting its biological wealth, ecological functions and hydrology at risk.
- One single dam along the river would destroy all these intrinsic values and functions, undermining the great eco-touristic potential of the area.
- Until now, the environmental impacts (biodiversity, natural flood protection and river bed erosion, etc.) of the Kalivaç project have not been properly assessed.
- the projected dam projects along the Vjosa and its tributaries to be abandoned
- the designation of a national park according to IUCN cat. II. The Vjosa National Park shall be the first Wild River National Park of Europe.
Find more photos here: Gallery "Vjosa River"
Vjosa (and tributaries) Videos
Video: Scientist for Vjosa
In April, 30 scientists participated in one week of research on Europe's last big wild river.
Balkan Rivers Kayak Tour 1
Residents of the Vjosa valley don’t want dams – they want their river to remain free. Rozle Bregar, Miha Avgustin, Aljaz Oblak
Balkan Rivers Kayak Tour 2
Some more Vjosa impressions. Camera: Rozle Bregar, Miha Avgustin, Aljaz Oblak
One for the River: The Vjosa Story
Watch this incredible documentary about kayaking the Vjosa - one of the last wild rivers in Europe! Thank you Leeway Collective
Bence River in Albania - Beautiful but threatened
Ulrich Eichelmann takes you to the Bence River - a tributary of the Vjosa and one of Albania's most beautiful rivers.
Protest against hydropower on the Bence river - Part 1
On April 29, 2015, about 150 people protested against the construction of a hydropower plant on the Bence.
Protest against hydropower on the Bence river - Part 2
Among the protester was singer Golik, who sings about the beauty of the Bence River
The Langarica - Part 1
Ulrich Eichelmann takes you directly to a natural spring along the Langarica, a tributary to the Vjosa in Albania
The Langarica - Part 2
Langarica and thermal spring from above
Video: The Vjosa at a Crossroad - ORF coverage
Coverage about the Vjosa Tour event in Selenica and the projected HPP on the Langarica (Vjosa tributary) on Austrian public service broadcaster ORF (ZIB2)
Video: Vjosa-Tour event in Selenica, March 13, 2015
At our Vjosa Tour event in Selenica, locals enthusiastically supported our Vjosa National Park idea and chanted "no dams, no dams".
Video: GEO Days of Biodiversity at the Vjosa River
Watch this video about the GEO Days of Biodiversity at the Vjosa (June 12-15, 2014).
Video: The Vjosa River – Europe’s Wild Jewel
Find out about Vjosa River’s beauty, its values and threats in this video by Adri an Guri. It features stunning views of the river, impressions of the Vjosa press conference in Tepelenë and many interviews.
Video: Save the Vjosa! (Lava 303 feat. Blue Heart of Europe)
Vjosa goes Clubsound: Friends of the Balkan Rivers produced this neat "Save the Vjosa" remix featering stunning Vjosa views. Enjoy!