The Vjosa is one of Europe’s last undammed, wild rivers, running untamed through southern Albania to the Adriatic Sea. It is a key source of life for numerous endangered plant and animal species, many of which have disappeared from the rest of Europe’s rivers. The Vjosa is a unique biosphere, where scientists are discovering new species with every journey downstream.
The river also holds important economic and cultural value for the nearby rural communities which formed the backbone of Albania’s agricultural industry during communist times. These communities have seen decline and, in some cases, total abandonment as development by the central government has waned.
Today, the Vjosa and its tributaries are under threat from hydropower dams, which would permanently alter the flow of the river, harming life within, and displacing thousands who live along its banks. The dams are part of a hydropower boom in the Balkans which has attracted local and international investors who often disregard the social or environmental impact of these projects.
Despite aspirations of joining the European Union, the Albanian government has ignored calls to halt construction on the Vjosa, which would qualify as a protected environment under EU law. Local villagers and an international group of scientists and activists are challenging the government in court, in attempts to preserve the biodiversity, communities and culture of the region."‹
The confluence of the Vjosa river and its tributaries the Drinos and Bënça, near the town of Tepelenë in southern Albania.
A group of scientists and activists raft down the Vjosa river, in between the proposed sites of two contested large scale hydropower dams near the village of Kuta, Albania.
The Vjosa near the Greek-Albanian border. This upper section of the river was recently declared a "protected landscape" by the Albanian government, a designation which falls short of the fully protected National Park status sought by activists, and which leaves the lower, more biodiverse section of the river vulnerable to development.
Gernot Kunz, a Macro Entomologist from the University of Vienna, photographs insects in the riverbed of the Shushica river in southern Albania. The Shushica is a largely unexplored tributary of the Vjosa river, where scientists have found new species of wildlife, or species that have gone extinct elsewhere in Europe.
Gernot Kunz a Macro Entomologist at the University of Vienna holds an unidentified species of Scorpion collected near the Vjosa river in Tepelenë. Scientists working on the Vjosa and its tributaries are regularly discovering new wildlife or species that were thought to be extinct elsewhere in Europe.
Gabriel Singer from the University of Innsbruck Fluvial Ecosystem Ecology Lab, filters water from the Shushica river for chemical analysis. The Shushica is a pristine, yet threatened tributary of the Vjosa, with several small scale hydropower plants planned.
Kuta, village in MallakasteÌˆr county. During communism, Kuta was an important farming village, and went through significant development in the first decades of the regime. However, the area has been in decline since the end of communism in the 1990s.
“Without our land, we have nothing.” Ylli and her family raise sheep and grow crops on land that would be flooded by a reservoir. There are few non-agricultural jobs in Kuta, meaning locals could have to relocate from lands their families have lived and worked on for generations.
A car returning from farmland in Kuta, near the proposed dam at Poçem. The large reservoir created by the dam would permanently flood agricultural land in the area, which locals have worked and relied on for generations.
Haxhi, a pensioner in Kuta. Haxhi worked in a cooperative set up to promote agricultural reforms during the start of communism in the 1950s and 1960s. The cooperatives led villages on the Vjosa to become an important part of the country’s agricultural economy.
Villagers bringing their cattle home in Kalivaç. Many locals were employed in the construction of a nearby hydropower project, which has since been stalled. However, some locals still provide security services for the site, despite not being paid for several years.
Interior, Shehu family home, BeÌˆnça. The Shehus have been active in protesting against the construction of a hydropower development nearby, and organised a petition to send to Prime Minister Edi Rama.
Rronja, a retired teacher in Kuta. Like many in the village, she does not hold title documents for her land, due to the administrative chaos that followed the fall of communism in the 1990s. This would complicate any attempts to claim compensation for land lost in the creation of the Poçem reservoir.
Abandoned petrol station on the road to Kuta. The road that links Kuta to the national highway is of poor quality, and has made shipping agricultural products impractical. During communism, the area was central to the agricultural industry and saw heavy investment in infrastructure, which ended after the fall of the regime.
PeÌˆrmet, a cultural hub in southern Albania, well-regarded for its traditional music, art and slow-food practices. The Vjosa is integral to plans for growing the area’s tourism industry, with the river seen as an important draw for rafting and kayaking excursions.
Kris, the son of a bar-owner in PeÌˆrmet, lamented the lack of opportunities for young adults in the town. Many have migrated to Tirana, the capital, or abroad, where there are greater chances to secure work. Tirana’s population has swelled, and now accounts for almost one third of the country.
The start of a trail on the edge of PeÌˆrmet. Eco-tourism has slowly been growing in the area in recent years, with some locals offering tours to explore both the Vjosa and the surrounding mountains of the valley.
Bridge over the Vjosa at NovoseleÌˆ, near the delta. Dams would increase riverbank erosion in downstream areas, meaning the already flood-prone delta region could see increasingly destructive flooding events in the future.
Interior, BeÌˆnça. Locals in the village have protested a hydropower project that will divert water from the nearby BeÌˆncÌ§a tributary, which feeds into the Vjosa. The loss of water from this river could have severe, negative consequences for the agricultural industry.
Rakip, a pensioner, looks out over the threatened BeÌˆnça river valley. Most of the village’s young population has left to work in nearby TepeleneÌˆ or the capital Tirana, leaving the older generation to work the area’s agricultural fields.
A farmer walks with his goats in the Bënça valley, near the construction site for a hydropower project. A pipeline would divert water from the Bënça river to a hydropower station down the valley, compromising water supply for villages in the area.
The site of a proposed large hydropower dam on the Vjosa river, near the village of Poçem. A group of local and international activists and scientists successfully sued the Albanian government in 2017, blocking construction of the dam due to a shoddy environmental impact report and lack of public consultation. The case has since been tied up in appeals.
Dam construction site, near Kalivaç. Construction at this site began in 2007 as a collaboration between Deutsche Bank and Italian businessman, Francesco Becchetti, but was stalled for several years after charges of fraud and money-laundering were brought against Becchetti. A subsequent contract was awarded to a Turkish firm to continue construction, but was cancelled by an administrative court in May 2021 due to a deficient environmental impact report. For the time being, there are no plans to continue construction.
Villager in Kalivaç. Many in the village supported the nearby dam project, believing construction would bring jobs and infrastructure improvements to their area. In reality, once dams are fully constructed, they offer few long term employment opportunities for nearby communities.
The Langarica river, a tributary of the Vjosa which has a series of small scale hydropower dams and diversions along its course. The dams were constructed by an Austrian company even though much of the river falls inside the protected Fir of Hotovê National Park.
Ulrich Eichelmann, a German ecologist, conservationist and CEO of Vienna based Riverwatch, which leads the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign. The campaign aims to raise awareness about the threat posed by the proposed construction of 3500 dams around the Balkan peninsula, which has some of the last pristine river systems in Europe.
Fisherman’s shelter constructed between two communist-era bunkers in the Vjosa delta. Fishing along the river plays an important part in the local economy, and has already been negatively impacted by unregulated practices, such as dynamiting. Furthermore, damming the Vjosa would be detrimental for species such as the endangered European eel, which migrates along the river to spawn.
Aerial view of Narta Lagoon, part of the Vjosa-Narta Protected Landscape in southern Albania. Plans were recently approved to construct a new international airport adjacent to the protect area, which lies directly in the middle of the Adriatic Flyway, an important route for migratory birds.