Fluss Vjosa von oben

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The River Vjosa: the river system in Albania is to become a national park

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Portraet Kim Kristin Mauch
Kim Kristin Mauch
Guest author 4-Seasons
© Fotos

Ulrich Eichelmann has worked in nature conservation for most of his life. It’s a job that usually requires a high tolerance for frustration. However, he and his colleagues in Albania succeeded in doing something no one thought possible: an entire river system is to become a national park.

Ulrich, when did you first hear about the Vjosa?
I hadn’t heard about the Vjosa at all until 2008. That’s rather unusual, because I know most of the rivers in Europe. I went there for the first time at the beginning of 2012. I immediately saw that this river was something very special. It’s unbelievable that something like this still exists!

What was so special about it?
To understand it, you have to know what other rivers in Europe are like. In Germany, Austria and Switzerland there are hardly any rivers left in their natural state. Maybe a small stream at the very edge of a river network. The rest have been straightened, obstructed or dammed.

And what about the Vjosa?
On our first visit, we could already see down into the valley from the road. The gravel bed runs through the landscape like a broad, white ribbon interspersed with a network of blue ribbons – the rivers – which sometimes flow apart and then come together again. The fact that something like this still exists in Europe, of this size and so untouched, really surprised me. The area is quite densely populated and close to the Mediterranean, the largest tourist hotspot in the world. But the Kalivaç hydroelectric power station was already under construction at the time.

A hydroelectric power plant could provide sustainable electricity for the region. Why are you against it?
The only thing that is sustainable about it is the destruction. Dams and hydroelectric power plants completely destroy rivers, severely affecting everything that lives in them. We need to ask ourselves whether we want to live in a biologically diverse world. In just a few weeks we found almost 1,500 species during a survey on the Vjosa. Conserving these animals and plants is extremely important.

Besides, it’s no longer a question of hydroelectric power – yes or no? The tens of thousands of hydroelectric power plants across Europe have long since provided the answer to that question. Do we really want to destroy everything, leaving nothing at all? Or, as a society that learns from its mistakes, should we say at some point: come on, enough is enough!

  • Ein Bagger im Fluss Vjosa, Albanien.
    Photo © Archiv Patagonia
  • Aufnahme Fluss Vjosa von oben.
    Photo © Archiv Patagonia
  • Karte von Albanien

Did you believe back then that you could do this on the Vjosa? To say: that’s enough!
At first, hardly anyone in our community believed that we could manage to protect the entire river system. The construction of a large dam had already begun at that time, and you can still see the remains of it today. I know from my many years of experience that confrontation is the only way forward. So, we worked together with EcoAlbania in Albania and EuroNatur from Germany.

What did you tell people?
The story of the beauty of this river. Forty hydroelectric power plants were planned at the time: eight right on the Vjosa, and the rest on its tributaries. We could have said back then: ‘Well, one power plant is already being built anyway. Can we please leave the rest alone?’ But that would have been counter-productive. We decided to try to stop all the power plants being constructed.

How were your demands received?
The Albanian government really wanted the hydroelectric power plants at the time. We explained that building just one power plant would be enough to destroy the entire ecosystem. Of course, that wasn’t what it wanted to hear. That’s why it was particularly important for us to get people from the judiciary and the scientific community on board and work with them. Everyone worked incredibly hard and went far beyond their comfort zone.

What did the population think?
First of all, it was important that they even found out about it. I would say that in Albania – and the Balkans in general – the population is used to not being informed. Even those who live directly on the Vjosa knew nothing about the extent of the plans. So we started by visiting almost every village on the river and holding evening events to explain what the government was planning – and what we were proposing instead.

How did the villagers react?
We pretty much agreed. Back in 2013, we held a press conference with all the mayors from the valley. They definitely didn’t want the hydroelectric power plants. Since then, we have fought together for a national park – on the streets and in court.

Is this environmental awareness something unusual?
Well, the people who live there are much closer to the events than we are, and they’re directly affected by the consequences. They have strong emotional ties to their rivers, which feature in many songs and stories. The people there grew up on the Vjosa, went fishing there and swam in the river as children.

So, you had a good strategy and committed partners. How did it become such a huge campaign?
I think bringing together international, national and local bodies on projects like this is the right combination. We had a certain amount of know-how, such as how to organise resistance, how to use lawyers to get justice, how to do media work. We knew how to make something really big so that the government couldn’t ignore us.

How big has the campaign become?
The company Patagonia supported us enormously, and even Leonardo DiCaprio wrote about the Vjosa on social media. No matter how often the government talked about ‘green electricity’ – at some point, everyone said: ‘Not this river!’

Naturschützer Ulrich Eichelmann in Albanien.
Photo © Andrew Burr

Ulrich Eichelmann (61)...

is an ecologist and conservationist. With his organisation RiverWatch, he has been working for years on the campaign to save the Vjosa in order to protect this unique ecosystem from the destruction caused by hydroelectric power plant construction.

And you’re still not completely satisfied? Have you never had any doubts?
Of course, you always have to weigh things up. But we have so many dead rivers and 28,000 hydroelectric power plants in Europe. Why can’t we renovate and modernise those instead of destroying one of the last wild rivers?

Your plan succeeded: no power plant was built, and the Vjosa National Park will open on 15 March 2023. Have all your dreams come true?
Not all of them, but many. Our basic demand was to protect the Vjosa and all its tributaries. We succeeded in that. And it will be a real national park in line with international standards, not just one that only exists on paper.

That sounds great...
Yes, we hope that the park will become a model for other projects around the world. Seventy-five percent of the area will be put out of use, meaning that nature can take its course there. This doesn’t even exist in many national parks in Central Europe.

However, we didn’t have the same success with the river delta. The Vjosa itself will become a national park, but the delta area on the Mediterranean with the dunes and beaches is not yet included.

Why is that so bad?
A new airport is planned in exactly this area, just one kilometre from the Vjosa. It’s already under construction. They shifted the boundaries of the protected area to do this. The lawsuits have already started. The plan also includes developing the beaches with tourist resorts and port infrastructure along the estuary. If that happens, the delta will be lost.

It sounds like you have a new project?
We will do everything we can to get the entire delta included in the national park. That’s its best protection against gradual destruction, including through tourism. For the Albanian government, the plan to develop tourism is based on bringing as many people as possible to the Vjosa. That’s a legitimate goal, but enjoying nature is not the same thing as ecotourism.

  • Fluss Vjosa von oben, links sieht man ein Kraftwerk, dessen Bau nie fertiggestellt wurde.

    The construction of a hydroelectric power station had already begun near the village of Kalivaç. However, the activists ensured that it was never completed.

    Photo © Archiv Patagonia
  • Eine Gruppe von Bewohnern aus dem Vjosatal

    The villagers who live in the Vjosa valley were largely not informed in detail about the construction projects.

    Photo © Archiv Patagonia
  • Ein Dorf am Ufer des Flusses Vjosa, Albanien.
    Photo © Archiv Patagonia
  • Einige Demonstranten mit Megaphon, Journalisten halten Kamera und Mikrofone zu einem Demonstranten, links stehen Polizisten.

    Protests against the government’s plans erupted at all levels – on the streets, in court and in other creative campaigns.

    Photo © Archiv Patagonia
  • Die Screaming Lady, ein Bild von einer schreienden Frau, liegt im Fluss Neretva in Bosnien-Herzegowina.

    The ‘Screaming Lady’ – artistically presented here in the Neretva river in Bosnia-Herzegovina – became a symbol of resistance.

    Photo © Archiv Patagonia

Isn’t tourism also part of your plan?
Sure, it’s right and it’s important to generate income for the region through tourism by protecting nature. That’s why a national park was the right medium: it can attract visitors and bring tourism and nature conservation into harmony. But only within the national park’s boundaries. Outside, i.e. in most of the valley landscape, the national park plan has no direct influence on whether anyone builds hotels or car parks there.

What exactly are you worried about?
If everyone flies there now and drives down into the valley in a rental car, that’s a problem. Then, large car parks and hotels will have to be built and soon, what no nature-loving person wants will happen: we will love the Vjosa to death. We need to think more about ecotourism and develop sustainable approaches, especially for transport, but also for resource consumption, waste water and waste management in general...

Would you still recommend people to visit the Vjosa?
Yes, of course! But honestly, it’s a double-edged sword. I can’t say: ‘Just look at the pictures, that will have to do.’ Instead, I would recommend going there, enjoying the beautiful nature and then doing something with it afterwards. Relaxation and enjoyment are absolutely fine. But ideally, you should take something home with you from a trip like this and ask yourself: is there actually nature worth protecting in my immediate surroundings? No matter whether it’s a tree in the park or a stream on the doorstep – we can all do our part in preserving ecosystems. If a trip to the Vjosa can inspire you in this way, that would be great.

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