The Vjosa is Europe’s last undammed, free-flowing river, running untamed for 270km from Greece through southern Albania to the Adriatic Sea. It is a vital source of life for numerous endangered plant and animal species as well as the people who inhabit its banks. Village populations have been declining, with young people leaving to find better opportunities abroad. Yet, ecotourism is slowly growing, bringing new economic opportunities and attracting visitors who want to see this pristine natural environment.
However, today the Vjosa is continuously threatened by hydropower projects, which would permanently alter the flow of the river, harming life within it, flooding villages and displacing people who depend on their land for survival. These projects come as a policy reversal by the government, which had promised to declare the area a protected national park. The courts upheld a lawsuit blocking construction of one dam, but an appeal has been filed and bids opened on a second potential hydropower project. Communities along the Vjosa have united in challenging the government’s on-going actions, in an effort to hold on to their disappearing way of life.
The Vjosa river, near the Greek frontier. In 2015, Prime Minister Edi Rama had promised several environmental groups that he would declare the length of the Vjosa a protected national park. Despite this, he was quick to issue the contract to build the first of several hydropower dams to a Turkish energy firm with ties to the Erdogan government, saying it was a deal that had already been agreed on with the previous administration.
Skander is 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 in the Bënça valley, where a hydropower project will divert water from a tributary river feeding into the Vjosa.
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. Dam construction would cause flooding of the agricultural fields that many people rely on for survival.
Rronja, a retired teacher in Kuta. She explained that most villagers do not hold the documents for their land, and therefore will have difficulty claiming compensation if it is flooded.
The start of a hiking trail outside of Përmet. Ecotourism 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. Damming the river would have severe consequences for migratory fish, including the endangered European eel and other species that have already become extinct in Central Europe.
Kuta, near he proposed site of the Poçem dam.
Laver, a pensioner in Kuta. He used to work as part of a cooperative during communism, where nearby villages traded goods between each other.
Roadside cafe near the site of a proposed dam in Poçem.
Church of Shën Premtes, Permet.
Romina Mustafaraj was appointed the government representative for the village of Kuta. She has asked for improvements to be made to infrastructure in the area, including the critical main road that links the village to the motorway. These improvements would boost the quality of life for many in the village.
Petran, near the Langarica canyon, where an Austrian hydropower project has already diverted water from the tributary river
Dona and her husband Robert own a small ecotourism company outside Përmet. They offer camping on their farm, as well as guided alpine and rafting tours. While tourism has been growing along the Vjosa, they worry about dams ruining the flow of the river and affecting their business.
Scientists gathering materials on the Vjosa, near Poçem. A team of Albanian, German, Austrian and Slovenian experts have been working at different sites to collect information about biodiversity to use in their case to block dam construction.
“Without our land, we have nothing.” Ylli’s family is one of many whose farmland has been threatened with flooding by dam construction. There are few other options for work around Kuta and residents worry about the future of their village, which has survived from the agricultural industry.
Interior near Gjirokastër, where the Vjosa and Drinos rivers meet.
The Vjosa river, near Poçem
The village of Kuta, in Mallakastër county. A reservoir caused by construction of the proposed dam at Poçem would flood the farmland below the village.
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.
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 still limited in areas along the Vjosa, meaning many people look for work nearby in Greece, Italy, or in Tirana.
Cemetery in the village of Bënça, where residents are trying to block construction of a pipeline that would move the river water to a hydropower station. Like many smaller villages, Bënça relies on this water for use in agriculture, which sustains most people in the village.
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.