Vjosa River

Europe's Unknown Wild Jewel

Albania's major river catchments with the Vjosa River basin marked in red. Source: WikipediaEurope's Unknown Wild Jewel

Albania

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.

 

 

In some stretches, the last big wild river of Europe (outside Russia) expands up to 2km in width © Gregor Subic

Biodiversity

Biodiversity

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 critically endangered European Eel. Dams would cut off its main habitats in the Vjosa catchment. Photo: blickwinkel/A.Hartl Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) in the Narta lagoon, Vjosa delta. Photo: Ferdinand Bego

It hosts a viable population of the near threatened Otter (Lutra lutra) and various migratory fish species, among them 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). 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.

Social and Cultural Values

Social and Cultural Values

Rafting along the Vjosa. Photo: Albanian Rafting FederationThe 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 Threats

The Threats

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.

 

The future Vjosa through the eyes of the hydropower lobby. Source: Ministry of Trade and Energy of Albania, 2008.

 

Vjosa River scenery. Photo: Goran ŠafarekThe 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.

Vjosa‘s tributaries are not to be spared either. Along the Langarica, a tributary to Vjosa’s upper reach, two hydropower plants are already in operation and another one is under construction close to the confluence with the Vjosa. All three projects are located inside the Fir of Hotova National Park, clearly contradicting international guidelines for national parks. The projects are financially supported by the World Bank.

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 are in progress again.

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.

The Langarica Canyon, up to 80 metre in depth. Photo: Adrian Guri Thermal springs along the Langarica attract hundreds of tourists each year. Photo: Ulrich Eichelmann
The Kalivaç Project

The Kalivaç Project

Highly dynamic meandering section in the middle river course – these habitats would be lost after dam construction. Photo: Romy DurstThe first hydropower plant that entered the implementation process is the Kalivaç project close to the city of Tepelena. The construction of the Kalivaç dam started in 2007, but was halted several times. Initially, the main source of funding was the Italian Becchetti Group and the Deutsche Bank. (http://www.begspa.com/eng/idroelettrico.htm).

Currently, construction works are on hold once again (which they have been for the past two years), and the level of completion is still only at 30%. The Vjosa River is still free flowing – but for how much longer? The Kalivaç dam would stop the natural ‘heartbeat’ of the whole river system by blocking the sediment transport from the mountains down to the Adriatic Sea.

The blocking of the sediments would lead to intensified riverbed erosion in the entire stretch downstream of the dam. This would impact even the river delta at the Adriatic Sea. The alluvial ecosystem would be degraded along almost 100 km. All aquatic and riverine habitats would be affected.

The Vjosa River and its tributaries are particularly important to migrating fish species which depend on clean, cold, and gravel-rich mountain streams, characteristics that the 85 km long Drinos River - the Vjosa´s main tributary - provides. The Drinos, as well as the upper Vjosa would be cut off from the lower Vjosa valley as well as from the Adriatic Sea, destroying the major remaining habitat for the European eel and numerous other migrating fish species in Albania.

Facts & Figures

Dam height:                                45m

Dam length:                                350m

Reservoir size:                           1,700 ha of submerged area

Capacity/ annual output:            90 MW/ 400 GWh

Average discharge at Kalivaç:   145 m³/s

Costs:                                        119 million €

 

The whole river stretch below the future Kalivaç dam – 100 km in length – would be impacted by erosion and altered hydrology. Photo: Ulrich Eichelmann
Conclusions

Conclusions

  • In the upper river section, pristine gorges, crystal clear, cold water and gravel-rich river beds provide invaluable spawning sites for fish. Photo: Goran ŠafarekThe 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.

 

We demand

  • 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"

PDF Downloads

PDF Downloads

  • Vjosa-Aoos Factsheet, which we presented at the press conference in Tirana on March, 12 2015 and which for the first time reveals the full extent of the threat to the Vjosa catchment area. According to this paper, the last big wild river of Europe is at risk of complete destruction.
  • In the context of the Days of Biodiversity – an initiative of the German GEO magazine – a remarkable field research event took place at the Vjosa river in Albania in mid-June 2014. Of the more than 400 species identified, ten percent are classified as threatened, rare or endemic, many of which are protected by international conventions according to IUCN and the Albanian Red List. Find all findings in the Vjosa Biodiverstity Days scientific report
Vjosa Videos

Vjosa Videos

 

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!

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