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The Vjosa River | A Successful Conservation Story

A couple of weeks ago, one of Europe’s last undammed rivers was protected as a national park. The Vjosa river in Albania, which has been deemed the “last wild river in Europe” became the first river in Europe to be protected as a national park. The river stretches for 168 miles from the Pindus mountains in northwestern Greece all the way to the Adriatic sea without any artificial obstacles, passing through canyons, plains, and forests as it travels. Since the Vjosa has gone so long without being dammed, it is truly an ecological wonder. It is incredibly biodiverse as it is home to over 1000 plant and animal species, including 13 species the International Union for Conservation of Nature considers globally threatened. This wild river national park is the first of its kind in Europe, and will hopefully pave the way for more like it.

For years, the river system was threatened by dam projects. At one point, 45 different hydropower plants were planned across the system. This would have flooded some parts of the valleys and left others dry, destroying the river’s natural wonder along with the land and homes of families who have lived in the Vjosa Valley for thousands of years. The new national park designation automatically halts all dam projects on the river, saving the area from destruction. Dams would have completely unraveled the wonderful ecosystem and the livelihoods of people who depend on it. Even though 94% of Albanians supported designating this area as a national park, corporate lobbying and political corruption kept this from happening for a long time. After almost a decade of fierce demonstrations by locals and advocacy from environmental NGOs to protect the Vjosa, it is finally safe.

The park, which will be operational by 2024, will span more than 31,000 acres and protect the 118 miles of the Vjosa river in Albania, its three main tributaries, and some additional land such as floodplains. Plans to expand this park to include other tributaries are in place, and the Albanian government has started working with Greece to protect the Vjosa’s headwaters and create the Aoos-Vjosa transboundary park

This is amazing. There are not many undammed rivers left, and hopefully, this is a harbinger of change. Dams are coming down in increasing numbers across the world, but we must ensure that we save rivers like this before they are dammed. A river is never the same after it is dammed, even if the dams are removed and the is given time to recover. This is why protecting areas like the Vjosa is so important. Additionally, protecting areas like this can address pollution and revitalize local economies through ecotourism, further benefitting the areas that would be harmed the most by dams. We badly need more conservation like this. We need healthy ecosystems to fight climate change and build resilient communities, and preserving nature is the best way to do this.

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