The Vjosa is Europe’s last undammed river, 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, largely unexplored by scientists, who 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 projects, 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 international investors. However, their involvement does not often extend to oversight of social or environmental impact of these projects on the region.
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 river region.
The Vjosa near the Greek- Albanian border. Despite willingness to declare the river a national park in 2015, the Albanian government issued a contract to build a new hydropower dam at Poçem. The European Parliament has demanded the government put a stop to plans for hydropower on the Vjosa, noting the environmental damage it would cause.
Skander, the caretaker of a Bektashi Teke, a mosque, near Përmet. The Bektashi order is a Sufi mystical sect of Islam, once popular with the elite of the Ottoman Empire. Their headquarters are now in Albania, with the majority of practitioners living in the Vjosa valley.
Interior, Bënça. Locals in the village have protested a hydropower project that will divert water from the nearby Bënça tributary, which feeds into the Vjosa. The loss of water from this river could have severe, negative consequences for the agricultural industry.
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.
Farm in Kuta, near the proposed dam at Poçem. The reservoir created by the dam would permanently flood agricultural land in the area.
Interior, Shehu family home, Bënça. 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.
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.
Kris, the son of a bar-owner in Përmet, 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 Përmet. 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 Novoselë, 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, Hotel Poçemi, two km from the proposed Poçem dam. Situated downstream from the site, Poçem and other villages could see a drastic reduction in the supply and quality of their water, which is sourced directly from the Vjosa.
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.
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.
Mercedes in the village of Kuta, near the proposed Poçem dam. Around 3,000 people living in Kuta and the surrounding area could be affected if their land is flooded by a reservoir. This would mean the end of the area’s agricultural production, the only industry most have known.
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.
Orthodox Church of Shën Premtes in Përmet,. The mayor of Përmet, Niko Shupuli has co-signed an open letter with four fellow local mayors, opposing the damaging effects which hydropower projects would have on their communities.
Romina Mustafaraj, government representative for the village of Kuta. Romina has campaigned for infrastructure improvements in the village, including maintenance of flood- prevention systems, and repairs to the main road linking the village to the national highway. However, no investment has been made by the central government.
Kuta, village in Mallakastër 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.
Scientists traveling on the Vjosa near Poçem. Because Albania was isolated by the communist rule of Enver Hoxha, much of the river and its environment remain unexplored. An international team of scientists and NGOs has been compiling data on biodiversity and the river’s morphology, to use as part of a case for preserving the Vjosa.
Tepelenë, at the confluence of the Vjosa and tributaries, the Drinos and Bënça. These tributary rivers were also in a similarly unmodified state, however, hydropower projects have since been undertaken on them. These projects have largely been opposed by local communities.
Fields between Kalivaç and Kuta, which would be lost to flooding for the reservoir created by the Poçem dam. Electricity generation could come to a standstill within 30 years due to sediment build-up in the reservoir. This would require expensive and invasive dredging equipment to be brought into the area in order to clear debris.
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 near Gjirokastër, where the Vjosa and Drinos rivers meet. The Drinos tributary is also threatened by several hydropower projects, which would affect migration routes for fish into the Vjosa.
Yanni, returning across the Vjosa from a search for scraps of iron around Përmet. Economic opportunities are limited in areas along the Vjosa, due to lack of development, forcing many people to find work abroad or in the capital, Tirana.
Petran, near the Langarica canyon. An Austrian-built pipeline has already diverted water from the Langarica tributary to a hydropower station. Construction was permitted even though the canyon is situated within the protected Fir of Hotova national park.
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.
Cemetery in the village of Bënça. Locals fear the diversion of the nearby river will lead to deprivation in their village, as they rely on the water for their agricultural business, growing medicinal plants.