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A step closer to Europe’s first Wild River National Park on the Vjosa River

June 15, 2022
The Vjosa River in Albania. Image: Romy Durst | Save the Blue Heart of Europe

Conservation of the Vjosa River took an important step forward this week as the Albanian government signed a commitment to establish Europe’s first Wild River National Park across its catchment.

The Vjosa is often termed one of ‘Europe’s last wild rivers’, flowing largely-unobstructed by dams and hydropower schemes from the Greek mountains through Albania to the Adriatic Sea.

In recent years, scientists and campaigners have sought to highlight the diverse ecosystems and wildlife supported by the Vjosa and its tributaries. A report released last year documented over 1100 plant and animal species across the catchment, including 13 globally threatened animal and two plant species. The report authors argue that Vjosa is thus a vital ‘near-natural’ river system, which has been largely lost elsewhere in Europe.

However, until now the Vjosa catchment as been afforded scant environmental protections, and has been threatened by a number of proposed hydropower developments and oil prospecting. The new agreement, signed in Tirana on Monday, states that the Albanian government will work with the Save the Blue Heart of Europe NGO group and Patagonia organisation to establish a Vjosa Wild River National Park.

It is intended that protections of the Vjosa River and its free-flowing tributaries will be raised to the IUCN Category II Level National Park. Under this designation, large ‘natural or near-natural areas’ are set aside to protect large-scale ecological processes. In other words, this level of protection would severely limit the potential for future hydropower and dam construction in the Vjosa basin, in order to conserve its biodiversity and ecosystems.

Campaigners display their support for the Vjosa National Park on the Tirana roadside. Image: Adrian Guri | Save the Blue Heart of Europe

“Albania’s Vjosa is nature’s unrelenting force, the only survivor of the wild rivers of our continent, the last river vein that bears no trace of contamination from the industrial development that has morphed Europe’s rivers into animals tamed for the energy-generation circus,” says Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama.

“Vjosa will remain the only wild water body that, just like on the day of its creation, will continue to bear witness to the wonder that once were the European riverbeds,” continues Rama. “Under the protective cloak of the National Park, Vjosa will stay intact for Albania, for Europe, for the planet we want for our children’s children.”

The agreement follows years of campaigning from groups such as Save the Blue Heart of Europe, who term the Vjosa the ‘last wild river in Europe outside of Russia’. The catchment is characterised by a mosaic of habitat types, from fast-flowing gorges to braided floodplains and deltas, many of which have high conservation importance. Moreover, the Vjosa basin is vital in supporting local communities through fishing, farming and – increasingly – eco-tourism.

“Albania’s leaders have shown vision and commitment today, signalling to the world their intention to do something unprecedented in nature protection,” says Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert. “Through our long-standing partnership with the NGOs behind the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign, we have learned first-hand just how exceptional the Vjosa is and are therefore humbled to work alongside the government and groups, devoting our skills and expertise to the establishment of Vjosa Wild River National Park.”  

“While there is much work to do before we can guarantee the future of the Vjosa, this is a major milestone for Albania and for river defenders everywhere,” states Besjana Guri from EcoAlbania. “The ambition of creating Europe’s first Wild River National Park is one step closer to becoming a reality.”

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