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Rivers don’t Forgive

Despite Albania’s commitment to European and global environmental initiatives, protests persist against threats to biodiversity, freshwater supplies and the expropriating of national parks

When it emerged from the challenging communist era back in 1991, Albania set its sights on Western democracy and a future aligned with Europe. Despite initially overlooking environmental concerns during the early EU transition period, increased awareness has been evident since 2006. The accession process prompted engagement, with Albania actively participating in and ratifying international environmental conventions. As negotiations advanced, a sense of closeness to Europe fostered increased environmental protection efforts.

Such progress proved very important, given Albanians’ strong connection with nature and the fact that nearly 25% of the country’s GDP is generated by agriculture. Beyond this, waterways are also vital for Albania, given that the country generates 100% of its electricity from renewable sources.

Albania adopted a “Concessions Law” in 2007, which paved the way for the construction of private hydroelectric power plants that aimed to turn Albania into an “energy superpower”. This law envisaged the construction of 443 hydroelectric power plants – the highest number in the region and around Europe.

The enforcing of this law sparked reactions and protests in subsequent years, particularly when new power plant projects threatened ecosystems, protected areas and drinking water. Various environmental associations began to emerge, the most prominent among them being the organisation “Protect the Rivers”. The unchecked increase in hydroelectric power plants began stirring residents in all corners of Albania from 2016, with the planned number of 430 hydro plants having increased to 540 by 2015.

A robust campaign under the slogan “Don’t Touch Valbona” was launched, with citizens, interest groups and local residents protesting the planned construction of 12 hydroelectric power plants along the course of the River Valbona in northern Albania. Despite legal battles and the non-compliance of private companies, efforts led by local NGO “TOKA: Organisation for the Protection of the Albanian Alps” succeeded in halting the construction one of the three hydropower plants planned for this national asset.

A significant effort centred around the defence of the River Vjosa, Europe’s last wild river, was initially led by the arts community through concerts protesting hydropower plants. The cause gained momentum when 20 environmental associations proposed that the Vjosa be proclaimed a national park. Thousands of residents participated in demonstrations and renowned Hollywood actor Leonardo Di Caprio even added his influential voice to the protest. The government acquiesced, officially designating the Vjosa a national park in March 2023.

Protests against the planned Skavica Hydro Power Plant, set to be one of the largest in the Balkans, have been widespread due to concerns that it would submerge numerous villages. Environmental organisations filed a lawsuit in the Constitutional Court of Albania, which criticised the lack of transparency towards residents but nonetheless allowed the project to proceed. With the government remaining silent on the issue for almost a year, the concessionaire still completed the feasibility study. Residents of five municipalities in northern Albania are actively resisting the construction of hydroelectric power plants, resorting to protests that have included acts of vandalism and pursuing legal action.

Moreover, in response to popular pressure and environmental reports on the disappearance of some rare species of fish, the Albanian government implemented a Hunting Moratorium to run from 2014 to 2026, in an effort to address illegal hunting and preserve biodiversity. Another moratorium, this one covering illegal logging, was enforced in 2016, also in response to citizen protests over perceived exploitation, with the destruction of the habitat of the rare Balkan Lynx playing a crucial role in this decision. Sensitivity to rare species also prompted the 2022 ban on fishing the Koran fish, aka the Ohrid trout, in the city and municipality of Pogradec on Lake Ohrid, one of the world’s oldest lakes.

A surge in the unchecked construction of hydropower plants has sparked widespread concern among Albanian residents since 2016

In southern Albania, the proposed construction of the new Vlora Airport in the Vjosa-Nartë protected area has met with significant opposition among citizens and civil society. The project is formally opposed by 37 environmental associations, citing the potential destruction of ecosystems that threaten over 10,000 bird species, as well as landing difficulties for aircraft. Alleged violations of the Bern Convention led to this matter being brought before European courts, which called for the suspending of works. The government nonetheless proceeded with construction, setting a completion deadline of 2025.

Opposition has also been on the rise when it comes to two floating thermal power plants in Vlora, operating on heavy oil and anchored in the Triport area that’s crucial for fishing vessels. Fearing water and air pollution, residents have protested the arrival and operating of these plants. Legal action has been taken by one of the plant-owning companies, including filing defamation lawsuits against protesting residents. Despite calls for the project to be halted, the government has persisted in efforts to make these power plants operational.

The integrated management of urban waste poses a challenge in Albania. Initial 2015 proposals for incinerators faced opposition from residents who opposed having them located near their villages. Despite opposition, the government – citing an environmental emergency – enacted a special law in 2017 that led to the construction of two incinerators in Elbasan and Fier, with plans for a third in Tirana. These incinerators currently remain dormant due to political opposition over their commissioning and concerns from residents who believe that they would contribute to environmental pollution by incinerating waste.

The construction and exploitation of quarries is another issue that has mobilised the residents of many Albanian villages. Quarries that are often in violation of environmental norms have been built near inhabited areas, creating strong seismic activity and damaging the homes of local residents. Quarries have also caused irreparable damage that threatens to destroy national assets. The most famous case is that of Mount Tomorr, which is considered sacred and brought protests from residents and the Bektashi community, leading to works being halted immediately.

A new law in the Albanian parliament seeks to alter the management of protected areas, transferring control to municipalities and allocating 20% of their area for construction. At least six environmental associations are actively opposing the law in parliamentary discussions and amendments, alleging that the government aims to further destroy green areas through construction. Simultaneously, a lawsuit has been filed in the administrative court against a government decision attempting to alter the boundaries of 11 national parks. Despite mild citizen reactions, the government persists in advancing the law through parliamentary committees.

A recent United Nations report identifies Albania as one of the countries that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, highlighting the severity of potential consequences. Institutional efforts to address this issue have been notable, including the approval of the National Energy and Climate Plan in 2021, extending until 2030. Businesses are also being encouraged to invest in renewables, positioning Albania as the region’s fastest-growing energy self-producer.

PRESSURE

In 2014, in response to public pressure and environmental concerns, the Albanian government imposed a Hunting Moratorium until 2026 to combat illegal hunting and protect biodiversity.

THREAT

A recent United Nations report identifies Albania as one of the countries that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, highlighting the severity of potential consequences.

PROTESTS

The opening of a quarry on the sacred Mount Tomorr sparked protests from residents and the Bektashi community, leading to a works being halted immediately.

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