The Vjosa is Europe’s last undammed river, running untamed for 270km from northern Greece through 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. The river also holds important economic and cultural value for the rural communities along its banks, which have been declining due to poor infrastructure and lack of development.
Today, the Vjosa and its tributaries are under threat from hydropower dam projects, which would permanently alter the flow of the river, harming life within it and displacing thousands of people due to flooding. These projects are part of a hydropower boom in the Balkans, funded by international banks, with little oversight over the cultural or environmental costs for their implementation.
This project traces the Vjosa through Albania, portraying the landscape and people both touched by its waters and bound to the uncertain fate of its flow.
The Vjosa river near the Greek border. In 2015, Prime Minister Edi Rama promised to declare the Vjosa a protected national park. However, he instead issued a contract for the construction of one of several hydropower dams to a Turkish energy firm with ties to the Erdoğan government. Rama said the deal had already been agreed upon with the previous administration.
Skander, the caretaker of a Bektashi Teke (mosque) near Permët. The Bektashi order is a Sufi mystical sect of Islam, once popular throughout the Ottoman Empire, and now especially prominent in the Vjosa valley.
Interior, Bënça valley. Locals have signed a petition against a hydropower project that will divert water from a tributary river feeding into the Vjosa. The loss of this tributary would negatively impact agricultural production in the village.
A shepherd on his way towards Përmet. The Vjosa valley is a major agricultural area, which faces severe changes if areas along the river become flooded or dry due to dam construction.
Farmland in Kuta. If the proposed dam is constructed, a reservoir will be created over the agricultural lands relied upon by many people in the area to feed themselves and their families.
Rronja, a retired teacher in Kuta. She explained that many villagers do not hold title documents for their land, due to the administrative chaos that followed the fall of communism in the 1990s. This would make claiming compensation for land lost due to flooding virtually impossible.
The start of a hiking trail outside of Përmet. Eco-tourism has slowly begun to grow in the area, bringing visitors eager to explore the pristine nature.
Kris, the son of a bar owner in Përmet. Many young adults have moved to the capital, Tirana, or abroad, where opportunities for work and education are greater. Most families have one or two children who live abroad and send back part of their earnings.
This bridge is a popular fishing location in the Vjosa delta near Novoselë. Fish such as the endangered European eel migrate through this section of the river to spawn upstream. Damming the Vjosa would block this established migration route and could have severe consequences for the species, and others which are already extinct elsewhere in central Europe.
The village of Kuta, near the site of a proposed dam project. Roughly 3,000 people live in the vicinity of this village and the river here.
Haxhi, a pensioner in Kuta, worked with a cooperative during the communist era to trade crops and other foods between local communities. Following the fall of communism, the cooperatives ceased in the area, and today, Kuta and other villages see little government support, investment or improvement of infrastructure.
Interior, hotel in Poçem, approximately two kilometers from a proposed dam site on the Vjosa. If the site is approved for construction, the dam would reduce the supply and quality of the water for the village and other areas downstream.
Fisherman’s shelter, the Vjosa delta, constructed between two communist-era lookout bunkers.
Church of Shën Premtes, Permët, an Orthodox church. The mayor of Permët, Niko Shupuli, co-signed an open letter with four fellow local mayors to the prime minister, Edi Rama, opposing construction of hydropower projects on the Vjosa.
Romina Mustafaraj, government representative for Kuta. She has campaigned for infrastructural improvements to be made in the area, including repair work to the critical main road that links the village to the motorway. However, no works have been undertaken.
Tepelenë, at the confluence of the Vjosa, Drinos and Bënça rivers. Hydropower projects are also planned for these smaller tributary rivers.
“Without our land, we have nothing.” Ylli’s family is one of many whose land would be flooded as a result of dam construction. There are few non-agricultural options for work in Kuta and residents worry about the future of their village if the dam is built.
Interior near Gjirokastër, where the Vjosa and Drinos rivers meet.
Scientists traveling on the Vjosa near Poçem. Because Albania was isolated under the communist rule of Enver Hoxha, much of the river and its biodiversity remains unexplored. An international team of scientists has been gathering data to build a case for preserving the Vjosa.
Kuta village, Mallakastër county. A reservoir created by construction of the proposed dam at Poçem would permanently flood the farmland below the village. The Albanian government has proposed compensation of €0.50c per square meter of land for those who can prove ownership and loss due to the flooding.
Villager in Kalivaç, one of the few areas where locals are supportive of dam construction because they believe it will bring jobs and investment into the area.
Petran, near the Langarica canyon, where an Austrian hydropower project has already diverted water through an underground pipeline from a tributary which used to feed into the Vjosa river. This canyon lies in a national park, however, construction was permitted by the Albanian government. As a result, the natural river bed through the canyon is mostly dry.
Fields between Kalivaç and Kuta, which would be lost to flooding from the reservoir created by the Poçem dam.
Tavlan, at a roadside cafe in Mallakaster county. He spent several years as a migrant worker in Greece and recently spent time in jail due to involvement in the drug trade. Marijuana cultivation is growing around the Vjosa and much of Albania, as it is providing a quick source of cash for a population which otherwise has few choices for employment.
Villages bringing their cattle home in Kalivaç. Locals are largely supportive of the hydropower project in this area, which started in 2008 but has been stalled since 2012. The Italian firm that began the construction employed locals and brought much needed infrastructure improvements to the area.
Përmet, a cultural hub in southern Albania. Well regarded for its traditional music, art and slow food practices. The Vjosa is integral to the growing tourism industry in the area, bringing in increasing numbers of visitors interested in kayaking and rafting.
Yanni, a scrap metal collector in Përmet. Economic opportunities are limited in areas along the Vjosa, and many people are forced to look for work in Greece, Italy, or Tirana.
Dam construction site near Kalivaç. The project has been stalled since 2012, when the Italian construction firm involved ran into financial difficulties. The Albanian government recently nullified this contract and opened bidding to new construction firms to finish the dam.
Cemetery in the village of Bënça, where residents are trying to block construction of a pipeline that would reroute the river to a hydropower station. Like many villages, Bënça relies on this water for use in agriculture, the main source of livelihood in the area.
Rakip, a pensioner from the village of Bënça. The river that the village takes its name from is a threatened tributary of the Vjosa. Water plays a critical part in the daily lives of people in this dry area, which depend on it for their crops.