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Albania’s nature: A business or a heritage?

The rivers Vjosa, Radika and the whole territory in-between are part of the Scardo-Pindic mountain network which has not been subject to intensive commercial development. This raises a pertinent questions about where Albania’s priorities lie with regards to the protection of environment.

To better understand the importance of protection, preservation and value of Albanian national parks, let’s take a look at the past and present. According to the Greek Institute of Geology and Minerals (2009) life in Vjosa has begun 14 000-13 000 years B.C., that coincides with the development of an appropriate climate, vegetation and fauna, as parts of conditions for humans to survive. This history is worth preserving [1].

The state took steps to introduce a regulatory framework for environmental protection, which, however, inefficient. About 15 National Parks (NP) and 2 Strict Nature Reserve (IUCN Categories) of a total area surface of 215 301.4 ha have been created with approval from the Council of Ministers during the last 50 years, aiming to conserve of their biodiversity, culture, landscape and water resources. In addition, a special law was passed to protect biodiversity, stipulating clearly, what has to be done in order to protect these dedicated areas. But yet, this framework is not working as it should. In part, the failure is attributed to the lack of professionals and experts in environmental sciences.

List of major Albanian rivers and their basins. Credit:
List of major Albanian rivers and their basins. Credit:

As a result of weak legal protection and enforcement mechanisms, nowadays the unchecked development of different businesses (and economic development in general) has affected not only urban areas, but the environment as well. Albania enjoys a Mediterranean continental climate (with heavy rains) and a topography made of ca. 69 % mountains and hills, which makes its rivers a real treasure for the tourism industry. More dangerously though, the rivers’ torrents has now begun to be used to generate hydropower, while hydroelectric plants are constructed with little planning, no sustainable technology of dams construction and no further studies of how it affects the environment.

10 National Parks, located between Vjosa and Drini Rivers, do not have special administrative or management structures (except Prespa NP); they are exposed to the continuous negative effect of human and different business activities, which has been felt more acutely during the last 23 years. Regarding this, Vjosa itself is “feeling” the degradation getting closer, since eight hydroelectric plants are planned to be built at different positions of its flow.

Meanwhile, Langarica River has already been desecrated by a fleet of heavy vehicles that have been working divert its flow for energy production, which further resulted in polluting the “Fir of Hotova-Dangëlli National Park”. If we go further up in north, somewhere between Devolli River and Osumi River, there is the Tomorri Mountain, where the bucket-wheel excavators are creeping towards the grave of Abaz-Aliu.

And so continues the story of big and small hydropower constructions, where no river can escape from them, whether it is in the protected areas or elsewhere.

These developments are wrapped in the cloak of legality through Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). An EIA is a process helping to predict positive or negative consequences of a plan, policy or project for the environment. The constructor, who wishes to develop the land, himself hires professionals to make this study and write up the application. When it is finished, the constructor submits it at the National Agency of Environment that makes the final decision after examining the application and quite often – based on it. Ideally, the Agency should do a comprehensive analysis of the proposed project under national, international and European law. All Albanian EIA procedures are currently asked to be done according to European standards. However, EIA is not an entirely adequate protection against harmful development, as the procedure does not always take into account the importance of preserving Albania’s biodiversity against the economic interests of private developers.

When we talk about environmental impact, loss of biodiversity, endangering species, desertification, erosion, change of bio-chemical factors in water as well as in land, modification of the natural nutritional chain are only the most obvious ones. However, the impact of the unchecked development is not limited to environment, but also has a socio-economic dimension. Contrary to the premise of economic development through destruction of environment, the locals in the affected areas have been the ones to bear the burden.

What has happen so far in those areas? Desertification of the adjacent areas lead to the decrease of arable land, suffering and poverty. Losing the only water supply means losing fresh water for drinking and satisfying other most basic human needs. Combined with the desertification, loss of water supply means decrease in arable land and possibilities for irrigation. This, in turn, affects agriculture and animal husbandry output. Surprisingly, it often means loosing access to electricity because the constructions are not well planned and cut the lines of supply. Having lost the base of their economic activity (and their agency as a consequence), the communities, dependent on agriculture and stock raising, are pushed to poverty and margins of society, while private developers are getting richer and the inequality gap is widening. The construction of the hydroelectric plants has started to show its scary effects really soon. In some municipalities of Korça County, which have always been distinguished for the abundance of water and which I have visited myself, just one year after the hydropower had started operating, the locals were having difficulties in securing supply of fresh water to their homes.

It remains a rhetorical question how it is possible to let this kind of madness go on any longer, when there is no doubt that in both short-term and long-term perspective it brings damage more than benefits by destroying those areas of Albania with the highest environmental values and at the same time with the biggest opportunities for a long-term economic and sustainable development. The nature is one of the most valuable assets that Albania is left with. And for Albanians, to preserve and cautiously utilise it for their future should be one of the most important priorities, since it increases quality of life, sustains local communities and attracts tourists – not only from Albania itself, but mostly the foreigners. That is why we should give the nature respect it deserves, preserve it and not allow any profit-minded group or individual to destroy what belongs to all of us and to the future generations.

References and further information

Cover photo credit: Arthur Neslen via The Guardian

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