Damming the Wild Rivers of Albania
Plans to build a series of dams and hydropower plants on the Vjosa River in Albania have unleashed a heated debate across Europe, as hydropower potential is weighed up against ecological considerations.
The Vjosa River is Albania’s third-longest river, covering a distance of 270 kilometers between its source near the village of Vovousa in the Pindus Mountains in northern Greece and the Adriatic coast in Albania. Along its 190-kilometer course in Albania, the river passes through mountainous terrain, carving its way through deep canyons. In its upper reaches, it is fed by several tributaries including the Langarice, which is known for its thermal waters. Further downstream, the Vjosa spills out into the coastal plain where it sprawls over a width of 2 kilometers in places. The river drains into the Adriatic Sea at the Narta Lagoon near the town of Vlora.
As one of Europe’s last ‘untamed’ rivers, the Vjosa is highly valued by all, though not always for the same reasons: environmentalists and nature lovers are
advocating the creation of a national park along the river’s entire course in Albania in order to preserve its unique ecosystem. The Albanian government and international developers, on the other hand, see huge potential for hydropower development along the Vjosa and other Albanian rivers.
So far, the Pigai Dam in Greece, which was completed in 1984, is the only structure that alters the natural flow of the Vjosa. But if the Albanian government carries out its plans, the Vjosa and its tributaries could undergo dramatic changes over the coming years. Hydropower is generally seen as a source of clean energy, but hydropower projects can have farreaching social and environmental impacts depending on their scope and scale. Small- and micro-hydro projects generally do not have reservoirs or dams and leave rivers mostly intact, while large-scale hydroelectric dams and their reservoirs entirely modify river flow and flood large tracts of land.
“The Vjosa should be left free and wild, as God created it.” Marson Murataj, local resident
According to data published by ‘Save the Blue Heart of Europe’, a campaign launched by two international NGOs, the Albanian government plans to build over 400 hydropower plants across the country, including eight dams on the Albanian stretch of the Vjosa River and 23 hydropower plants on its tributaries. The Ministry of Energy and Industry would not confirm these figures or the types of structures that are planned, saying that every project proposal is individually assessed and the technology to be used will only be determined at a later stage. To date, the ministry has granted licenses for the construction of two hydroelectric dams on the Vjosa at Kalivaç and Poçem, while a number of hydropower plants are already under construction on the river’s tributaries.
Albania is among the most water-rich countries in the Mediterranean region: eight major rivers form a network of over 152 river streams and connecting waterways across the country. This abundance, combined with the country’s mountainous terrain with deep gorges, cascades and rapids, makes it ideally suited for hydropower generation.
Hydropower is currently Albania’s only domestic source of electricity. According to Albania’s National Institute for Statistics, hydropower supplies up to 80% of the country’s needs, with imports making up the remaining 20%. The country has also seen a steady rise in electricity exports since 2013, though the supply fluctuates widely depending on rainfall levels and river flow. Going forward, the government plans to diversify the sources of electricity production, with plans to implement a controversial and long-delayed thermal power plant on the coast at Vlora and develop renewables such as wind and solar power. Still, the potential of hydropower is enormous in this water-rich country and the government is keen to exploit this, both to satisfy growing demand and to attract foreign investment in renewables.
“Domestic electricity demand is constantly rising, which means we need to increase our power-generating capacity,” says Dardan Malaj, a communications advisor at the Ministry of Energy and Industry. “Moreover, foreign investors are mainly interested in the country’s energy sector and Albania really needs those investments.”
Albania has a large trade deficit – exporting 27% as a proportion of GDP and importing 44% in 2015 according to the World Bank – and the prospect of attracting investments and generating energy at low cost for export is clearly alluring.
Plans to dam the Vjosa are not new. In 1997, the Albanian government licensed the Italian Becchetti Group to build the country’s first concessionary hydroelectric dam at Kalivaç. The dam, designed with a height of 45 meters and a reservoir capacity of 350 million cubic meters, was scheduled for completion in 2002, but 14 years on the project remains only 30% completed following a series of missed deadlines. The delays are the result of ongoing disputes between the government and the Becchetti Group amidst allegations of political intrigue, fraud, money laundering and forgery.
The government is, however, determined to pursue the project at Kalivaç, despite serious financial problems and ongoing public protests on local, national and international levels to leave the Vjosa untouched.
A National Park
Albanian and international environmental groups such as EcoAlbania, EuroNatur and RiverWatch have mounted strong opposition to the government’s plans, warning that the dams will destroy the river’s ecosystems.
“The Vjosa River is an integrated ecosystem from its source to the point where it flows into the Adriatic, and this natural dynamic will be totally destroyed if large dams are built along its course,” says Lavdosh Ferruni, a leading Albanian environmentalist. He warns that the construction of dams on the Vjosa will reduce local biodiversity, prevent fish migration and even affect the environment in the Vjosa Delta due to the decrease in sediment release below the dams.
In a bid to calm protesters, the Albanian prime minister, Edi Rama, announced in July 2015 that his government – which came into office in 2013 – would not build dams along the entire length of the Vjosa, as the previous government had planned. Instead, they would seek a compromise, turning the upstream part of the river into a natural park up to Kalivaç and building hydropower plants downstream of the unfinished dam. “The Vjosa is one of the most beautiful rivers in Europe,” he said. “It is a great European treasure. We will work with international organizations to implement the project of Vjosa as a national park.”
Ferruni rejects this new scheme as a government ploy to silence opponents and legitimize its dam projects. Critics were also quick to point out that Rama’s statement opened the way for the construction of dams and power plants downstream of Kalivaç. Indeed, barely a month later, in August 2015, the government announced plans to build a new dam at Poçem, 27 kilometers downstream of Kalivaç. Since then, a consortium of two Turkish companies won the international tender for the $110 million project.
Malaj insists that the project at Poçem will be carried out according to the environmental standards of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. He adds that the government decision to forbid the construction of hydropower plants upstream from Kalivaç shows it is serious about preserving the river’s natural ecosystems.
However, environmental activists and scientists involved in the campaign to prevent the damming of the river say that the Albanian government has a poor record when it comes to conducting Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) and that studies carried out in the past have fallen well short of international and EU standards. “Environmental assessments in Albania are usually not worth the paper they are written on,” says Aleko Miho from the University of Tirana. “Our knowledge about flora and fauna as well as about the sediment situation along the Vjosa is too limited to conduct a reliable EIA. We lack the data and research.”
Besides the irreversible environmental damage that hydropower plants are likely to cause, campaigners also point out that hydropower is an outdated and unsustainable source of renewable energy. They believe the Albanian government should instead develop eco-tourism opportunities along the Vjosa and generate power from other renewable sources such as wind and solar. With 265 days of sun per year, Albania indeed has a high potential for solar power generation.
“The hydropower epidemic that has taken over Albania since 2009 is just a covert means for a handful of people to make a profit, while destroying the country’s environment,” says Ferruni. “Research shows that solar and wind power are far more sustainable.”
The reliability of hydropower has also been questioned. Already today, fluctuating rain- and snowfall levels lead to broad variations in the country’s annual hydropower production. The predicted effects of climate change, including higher temperatures, more frequent drought, and less rain and snow, are likely to further enhance this variability.
Local communities along the Vjosa are also worried. They believe the dams will submerge everything: their homes, their land – even their identity. Marson Murataj, 29, who lives in the village of Kuta between Kalivaç and Poçem, says that the dam at Poçem will flood most of Kuta and its agricultural land. It will also affect the neighboring villages of Anebreg, Corrush and Sevester and their agricultural land.
Most communities living along the Vjosa live off agriculture, livestock farming and fishing. The dam projects would have far-reaching consequences for them, according to Murataj. “The Poçem Dam will affect up to 10,000 people and flood thousands of hectares of agricultural land in the area, depriving us of our main source of income,” he says.
He adds that locals feel disappointed and angry because the government never asked their opinion on the construction of the hydropower plants and now turns a blind eye to their concerns. So far the government has not provided any details about where people displaced by the dams would be resettled or how they would be compensated for flooded properties and agricultural land.
Meanwhile, local and international NGOs have launched a series of campaigns and protests against the dam projects. Eight leading environmental organizations have created the network ‘Protect the Rivers’, while another group of individuals has launched the Vjosa Front, which focuses on mobilizing locals and raising awareness through a social media campaign.
The Vjosa campaign has also garnered considerable international attention. In April 2016, the European Parliament called on the Albanian government to control the development of hydropower plants on the Vjosa and recommended it improve the quality of Environmental Impact Assessments to take EU standards into account. A month later in May 2016, the vice-president of the European Parliament, Ulrike Lunacek, joined a group of around 100 environmentalists, kayakers and journalists from across Europe to appeal to the Albanian government to cancel the dam projects on the Vjosa.
Meanwhile, a group of scientists from Albania, Austria and Germany has called for a three-year moratorium on all construction plans on the Vjosa and its tributaries, in order to allow for the implementation of an interdisciplinary research and assessment program on the Vjosa River. They suggest the Vjosa could serve as a “large-scale natural refuge and laboratory of pan-European significance” and an international reference site for climate change research.
On the ground, environmentalist Ferruni says the protests will continue until this goal is reached: “We will continue actively protesting and doing everything we can to stop the project at Poçem.” Murataj is also determined to continue campaigning: “If the dams are built, our history will be flooded and vanish together with the fields. We cannot let that happen. The Vjosa should be left free and wild, as God created it.”
Fatjona Mejdini is a journalist at Balkan Insight. She is based in Tirana, Albania, and has more than a decades experience in local and regional media.