In the south of Albania, the Vjosa river flows freely for 270km from its source in northern Greece to the Adriatic Sea. Considered to be Europe’s last wild river, the natural, un-dammed state of the Vjosa supports a rich ecosystem, with plant and animal species completely unique to the region. It has also been an important economic and cultural source for communities who have lived along its banks for centuries. The Vjosa has inspired songs, poetry, legends and is even a popular name for newborn girls.
Today however, the river is facing numerous existential threats, from plans for exploratory oil drilling, construction of an international airport in its delta, and proposed large scale hydropower dams. This has alarmed local communities and conservation groups, concerned by the potential for widespread environmental destruction, and resulting loss of cultural heritage that these projects would create. Despite being a candidate for European Union membership, the Albanian government has so far refused to adequately defend the Vjosa from development, though it would qualify as a protected area under EU law.
Now the Vjosa has become the focal point of a wider environmental movement in the Balkans, drawing in an international group of scientists, activists and celebrities with the ultimate goal of creating Europe’s first Wild River National park, and providing a new framework for river conservation around Europe.
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 of hydropower dams.
A car returning from farmland near the village of Kuta in southern Albania. Located between the sites for two proposed hydropower dams, most of the agricultural land below would be flooded by a reservoir should the projects move forward.
Ylli and her family raise sheep and grow crops on their land below the village of Kuta. The proposed construction of nearby dams would create a large reservoir, flooding most of the fertile land in the surrounding areas. With few non-agricultural jobs in the area, most of the remaining people in Kuta would most likely be forced to relocate.
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 has been at the centre of the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign, which aims to end hydropower development on rivers throughout the Balkan peninsula.
The Shushica river, near the village of Brataj in southern Albania. The Shushica is one of several unspoiled tributaries of the Vjosa, contributing to the natural functioning of the entire river system, and is still a crucial water source for local agricultural communities. Multiple small scale dams are slated for construction on the Shushica.
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.
A 16th Century Venetian bridge on the Shushica river near the village of Brataj, Albania. Locals regularly cross this bridge with their herds of animals, taking them to graze in surrounding pastures. The river provides an important water source for the communities, who rely on it for agricultural production.
Gernot Kunz a Macro Entomologist at the University of Vienna holds an unidentified species of Scorpion collected near the Vjosa river in Tepelenë, southern Albania.
Gabriel Singer from the University of Innsbruck Fluvial Ecosystem Ecology Lab, filters water from the Shushica river for chemical analysis. An international group of scientists has been studying the Vjosa and its tributaries for several years, compiling their findings about the biodiversity and functions of the river into several reports, and advocating for more stringent protection measures.
Kuta, a hillside village overlooking the Vjosa. During Albania's communist regime, Kuta and the surrounding villages were organised into cooperatives, playing an important role in the country's agricultural industry. Since the regime's downfall in the 1990s, the area has experienced widespread depopulation and poverty, with those remaining mostly subsisting on farm work. The village is situated in between the proposed sites for two large hydropower dams.
Haxhi, a pensioner in Kuta. Haxhi worked in a cooperative set up with nearby villages during the beginning of Albania's communist regime in the 1950s. Villages along the Vjosa played a central role in the country's agricultural industry at the time.
Interior, abandoned house, Kuta. Populations in rural villages like Kuta have been declining, with young people leaving to find work abroad or in the capital, Tirana. Many villagers who remain are helped by family members abroad who send back part of their earnings.
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. Should nearby dam projects go ahead, many would have trouble claiming compensation for loss of their land, without being able to prove their ownership.
An abandoned petrol station on the road to Kuta. Once at the heart of Albania's agricultural industry, the poor quality road and lack of investment have left Kuta and nearby villages along the Vjosa largely cut off.
A shepherd on his way towards Përmet, a town on the upper stretch of the Vjosa river.
Përmet, 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. Just south of the town, Shell has been conducting exploratory drilling for oil, with a 2018 contract allowing them to exploit the area for 25 years.
Elona Bejo, the owner of Ferma Albanik, an eco lodge close to the Vjosa river. Born nearby, Elona and her family moved to the capital city, Tirana, when she was young. As an adult, Elona returned to have more of a connection with nature and the land. She has been an outspoken activist against plans for oil exploration and hydropower dams on the Vjosa,
A bridge over the Vjosa at Novosela, close to the Adriatic sea and the river's delta region. Construction of dams upstream could lead to increased riverbank erosion, increasing the risk of flooding for downstream communities like Novosela.
The confluence of the Vjosa river and its tributaries the Drinos and Bënça, near the town of Tepelenë in southern Albania. Many sections of the river are braided, featuring islands that change throughout the year depending on flooding, and the natural flow of sediment.
An interior of the Shehu family house in Bënça, a village on the tributary river of the same name. The Shehus and other locals organised protests against a hydropower project on the Bënça river, blocking roads and sending a signed petition to the central government.
Rakip, a pensioner, looks out over the threatened Bënça river valley. Most of the village's young population has left to work in nearby Tepelenë 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 proposed construction site for a hydropower project. A pipeline would divert water from the Bënça river to a hydropower station downstream, compromising water supply for villages in the area.
Golik Jaupi, a well known iso polyphonic singer from the village of Bënça, stands near the Vjosa river in Tepelenë. He was one of the lead activists against proposed hydropower dams on the Bënça tributary river, which successfully resulted in Prime Minister Edi Rama halting the projects.
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. For much of the year the river runs at a fraction of its natural flow, with much of its water diverted underground to a power station downstream.
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 sued the Albanian government in 2017, citing a falsified environmental impact assessment, and lack of public consultation. A high court found in favour of the group, ordering construction to halt. The case has been in appeal for several years.
A villager in Kalivaç, near the construction site of a large scale dam. Many locals favoured the dam, believing its construction would bring jobs and infrastructure improvements to their area. Once completed however, dams require only a small workforce for their operation.
A stalled construction site for a large hydropower dam near the village of Kalivaç, on the Vjosa river. Construction began in 2007, but was halted several years later due to accusations of fraud and money laundering against the contractor. A subsequent contract for a Turkish construction firm was nullified by an Albanian court in 2021, citing an insufficient environmental assessment.
Locals bringing their cattle home in the village of Kalivaç, near the construction site of a large hydropower dam on the Vjosa. Now stalled for several years, many locals were employed for the project, and were in favour of its construction due to promises of development and job security.
Ulrich Eichelmann, CEO of Austrian NGO Riverwatch, stands near the abandoned construction site of the Kalivaç hydropower dam on the Vjosa river. Riverwatch has been leading the international campaign to protect the Vjosa, which has attracted major backing from celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio. Eichelmann previously worked for the World Wildlife Foundation and has been involved in several high profile campaigns against hydropower projects around the world.
A 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 protected area, which lies directly in the middle of the Adriatic Flyway, an important route for migratory birds. This came despite widespread condemnation from environmental groups, and projections that the airport would not be a successful business venture, largely due to the existing Tirana international airport, which is only an hour away.