As the impact of climate change pushes countries to invest in renewable energy, Southeastern Europe has seen a surge in hydropower development, with close to 3000 dams planned or under construction in the Balkan peninsula. With some of the last truly wild nature in Europe, scientists and activists have raised concerns about the environmental impact of this seemingly unchecked regional hydropower boom.
In the mountains of northern Albania, the impact of dams threatens to clash not just with nature, but also with a unique culture. In the remote Kelmend region, the highland Malësorët people have maintained their traditional existence, rooted in agriculture and pastoralism, despite generations of struggle against foreign occupation, domestic dictatorship and poverty. Central to this lifestyle and cultural identity, has been their relationship with the alpine rivers that flow through the steep valleys, providing a critical source of water supply and contributing to the region’s uniquely high biodiversity.
Now as Albania receives energy subsidies and loans from Western banks, several “small scale” dams are being constructed on these rivers without public consultation and with little potential for contributing meaningfully to the country’s energy supply. While protests have fallen on deaf ears, pipelines are being prepared to siphon large sections of the Cemi river underground, threatening the very lifeblood and culture of the people who have fought to protect this region for centuries.
Koprisht, Kelmend Region, Northern Albania. Historically, the Albanian Alps has been the most isolated region in the country and was never fully controlled during the Ottoman Empire’s 500 year reign. It has been inhabited by the Malësorët, a highland people who operated under a tribal system dictated by the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini. This ancient social code directed everyday behaviour and rules in the region and elements of it are still practiced today.
Gazmend Bikaj collects brush from the surrounding forest to construct a roof over a livestock enclosure in Koprisht. Gazmend is a shepherd from Kalsa, a hamlet some 30km away, where he lives with his family most of the year. During the summer months they migrate to an encampment in the high pastures of Koprisht, taking a flock of sheep that belong to a farmer from the lowlands. The family are paid to watch over the sheep as they graze throughout the summer and receive a portion of the milk produced.
During the summer, shepherds live in the high mountains in a temporary shelter called a Stan. The structures are basic with an exposed dirt floor, stove and loft area for sleeping. The Bikaj family’s Stan includes a solar panel providing them with electricity, with water provided by a direct line to a spring in the ground.
Wilson Bikaj, one of Gazmend’s sons, helps round up sheep in an enclosure in Koprisht. The entire Bikaj family takes part in the process of caring for and grazing the sheep.
Fonsi Bikaj rides a horse next to the Cemi river near the village of Kozhnje. Rivers are integral to the lives of the local population, who still rely on them for drinking water and irrigation for farming. They also contribute to high levels of biodiversity in the area, with the Cemi river valley containing 800 out of the 1100 plant species recorded in the Albanian Alps. Local NGOs believe some areas in the river valley could qualify for protected status if more thorough scientific reports are conducted.
Construction materials for a hydropower project near the village of Tamarë. Multiple small scale hydropower dams are approved or under construction on the Cemi river. These dams will divert river water into pipelines that feed directly to a power station. In Kelmend these projects are being undertaken without public consultation and because the plants generate under 10 megawatts output, don’t require an environmental impact assessment .
Simon Naçaj walks to the structure where he keeps his herd of goats in the village of Selcë. The village is located on the banks of the Cemi river in the low area of Kelmend. Simon has been active in protesting hydropower projects on the river since 2017, when someone came to offer him money for his land. He organised a petition with 600 signatures that was sent to the Prime Minister, as well as a protest that blocked the main road.
Prenë Naçaj and her son Gjergi take young goats out of a separate enclosure for them to feed with their mothers. They have reported problems with water supply due to construction of hydropower plants in the area and have to take their animals farther away to feed in the summer.
From left to right, Prenë Naçaj, Maresh Bujaj and Simon Naçaj stand outside a livestock enclosure in the village of Selcë. The locals fear the effects that nearby hydropower dams could have on their water supply. They have organised several protests against the dams since 2017, but lately have remained quiet after they reported several arrests and harassment by police.
A shepherd’s dog waits near an outcropping overlooking the Cemi river near Vukel. This branch of the Cemi has a stronger flow than the branch near Selcë but remains undeveloped with dams. A larger 20 megawatt dam is in the planning stages on this branch, with others believed to be following. Locals and NGOs working in the region are often unaware of these plans until construction materials already arrive at a site.
The construction site of a small scale hydropower plant on the Cemi river, near the villages of Tamarë and Selcë. Over 14 dams are planned along the length of the Cemi, involving construction of several kilometres of pipeline that would divert river water, potentially drying out large stretches. Much of the river flows through neighbouring Montenegro, where officials have raised concerns with the Albanian government over potential threats to the environment and migratory fish. Dams producing under 10mw output often require no environmental impact assessment to be conducted.
From left to right, Vot Gjyste, Marketin Naçaj, Fonsi Bikaj and Prek Tanazej rest near a cafe on the banks of the Cemi river, near Kozhnje. The region has seen an exodus of young people in recent years, with some 60% of the population of Kelmend emigrating, many to the United States. Job opportunities are limited and poverty levels remain high in the region, which has seen little development since the fall of the communist regime.
Nikola Naçaj, a young shepherd in the village of Selcë. Unlike many of his peers who have left the valley, Nikola wants to stay with his herd of 45 goats, and worries about the effects of a dam being constructed nearby.
Vukel, a village in the Kelmend region. This part of the valley is more remote than Tamarë or Selcë, with no paved road leading to it. It remains accessible only with a 4×4 or on foot along a dirt road that follows a branch of the Cemi river.
Age Murçaj a villager in Vukël. Emigration from the region has left a mainly ageing population, who often rely on family members sending money from abroad to live.
Catholic church, Vukël. Catholicism dominates the north of Albania and is especially strong in the Kelmend region.
A tapestry and poster depicting martyred Albanian Catholic priests hangs on a wall in Koprisht. The area saw heavy resistance by the Catholic population against communism in the early days of the regime, and subsequently was one of the most repressed and undeveloped parts of the country.
Diellë Cekal returns to her house after taking her sheep to graze in the village of Vukël. Most of the population relies on farming or their livestock to make a living.
Fonsi Bikaj moves a herd of sheep along the road from Tamarë to Koprisht, 35km away. Earlier in the day his father Gazmend had taken the sheep from their owner in the lowlands outside the city of Shkoder and walked with them into Kelmend. This process of transhumance has been practiced in the mountains for hundreds of years and risks dying out as the population decreases along with environmental threats being posed by hydropower development on rivers.
Lula Bikaj watches over a herd of sheep as they graze in a pasture near the village of Lepushë.
Lula and Gazmend Bikaj with their son Valdijan at their temporary summer shelter in Koprisht. Their entire family intermittently stays to help out with the sheep in the summer, while making periodic trips to collect supplies from their house some 40km away.
Anjeza Bikaj tries to corner a sheep that escaped from being milked. Every morning the sheep are lead into a small pen, and are then milked one at a time before being let into a larger enclosure.
Albana Bikaj shares a moment of laughter with her sister Anjeza as the two make playing cards at the family’s summer shelter in Koprisht.
A hiking trail through the woods above Lepushë, which is part of the Peaks of the Balkans trail, a long distance circular hiking trail that links some of the most prominent peaks between Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro.
Rrok, a shepherd from Nikç who travels to the high pastures in Koprisht to keep his flock of sheep in the summer.
High pastures above the tree-line near Lepushë, where several shepherds have their summer encampments. Historically the Albanian Alps have also been known as Bjeshkët e Nemuna (the Accursed Mountains), owing to their isolation and difficult terrain. This has left the area largely untouched until recent plans to construct hydropower dams on several of the region’s rivers.
The Bikaj family harvests a field of potatoes in the mountain pastures above the village of Lepushë. The family will return to their more permanent winter home after spending most of the summer in the high mountains farming and caring for a herd of sheep.
The village of Lepushë, close to the border with Montenegro. This was a heavily patrolled militarised area during the communist regime, where arrests or killings of those trying to flee to Yugoslavia were common. Today many residents have converted their houses to bed and breakfasts, offering accommodation to hikers during the summer, one of the few profitable industries in the region.
Gazmend Bikaj rests at his family’s encampment in Koprisht.
The Cemi river flows near Kalsa. Over 14 hydropower projects are planned on the Cemi, with two currently under construction. Local fears about water supply, effects to biodiversity and the environment are high. Despite opposition to these plans, the government has so far not reversed course on its energy policy in the area. Albania currently generates over 90% of its energy from hydropower, but electricity often has to be imported during long summer months when water levels are low in rivers across the country.