Mayors join campaign to save Vjosa River from dams

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times February 23, 2017 16:43

Mayors join campaign to save Vjosa River from dams

Story Highlights

  • “This river is closely related to the everyday life of local residents, offering chances for the development of agriculture, fishing and tourism as the main source of economic development in the future," say the mayors in their open letter, concerned that neither the local government units, nor the local residents were engaged in public hearings during the decision-making

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Vjosa River scenery. Photo: Goran Šafarek

Vjosa River scenery. Photo: Goran Šafarek

TIRANA, Feb. 23 – Local government units along the Vjosa River in southern Albania have come together in an appeal to the Albanian government over saving one of Europe’s last wild waterways which is threatened by a big hydropower plant that has received the final okay to start construction works, defying calls by local residents, environmentalists, civil society activists and even members of the European Parliament to protect what they call a unique ecosystem and the “Blue Heart of Europe.”

In an open letter to Prime Minister Edi Rama and Parliament Speaker Ilir Meta, the mayors of Permet, Tepelene, Memaliaj, Mallakaster and Selenice nominated by both the ruling majority and the opposition Democrats in the February 2015 local elections, call on the central government to suspend concession contracts on hydropower plants threatening to dam Vjosa River and destroy sustainable tourism in one of Europe’s last wild rivers.

“This river is closely related to the everyday life of local residents, offering chances for the development of agriculture, fishing and tourism as the main source of economic development in the future,” say the mayors in their open letter, concerned that neither the local government units, nor the local residents were engaged in public hearings during the decision-making.

The appeal comes as the Albanian government concluded last November contracts negotiations with a Turkish consortium to build a 100 MW Poçem hydropower plant under a 35-year concession contract, in what is expected to be one of the country’s biggest HPPs.

“At a time when the whole Vjosa Valley is facing the threat of turning into a huge hydroelectricity park not based on serious all-inclusive studies, but political guiding, and being urged by concerns of residents whom we represent and stances by local and international stakeholders regarding the threat posed to the Valley’s values as a result of hydropower projects, we, the locally elected representatives of the Vjosa River and its tributaries, demand the Albanian government to reconsider the HPP projects along the Vjosa river and its tributaries and undertake initiatives to suspend the concession contracts on the HPP construction as well as guarantee the participation of the local community in decision-making,” the mayors say in their joint letter.

Vjosa is one of Europe’s last intact waterways, famous for its Canyons drawing kayakers from all over the world. It flows freely from the Pindus Mountains in Greece to the Adriatic Sea over a course of 270 kilometers. Scientifically, the river remains largely unexplored.

“Our local government units have not been officially informed of plans to build the Poçem hydropower plant and residents affected by this HPP were not engaged in public hearings,” says Agron Kapllanaj, the Mayor of Mallakastra, as quoted by EcoAlbania environmental NGO that has been leading efforts to stop hydropower plant construction in Albania through an awareness campaign dubbed “Saving Europe’s Blue Heart.”

Thermal springs along the Langarica attract hundreds of tourists each year. Photo: Ulrich Eichelmann

Thermal springs along the Langarica attract hundreds of tourists each year. Photo: Ulrich Eichelmann

Tepelena Mayor Termet Peçi says “we have other plans on the valley’s development and tourism there. The construction of the hydropower plants endangers this potential. Tepelena boasts dozens of natural and historic treasures which should be promoted and sustainably developed.”

The Mayors also demand full transparency by the Greek government on interstate river deals considering that Vjosa’s source in northwestern Greece, some 50 miles off the Albanian border.

“The case of Vjosa is an issue that concerns rule of law and democracy in the country. The valley residents are the first ones who should be part of the decision-making on projects directly affecting their lives and future,” says Olsi Nika, an EcoAlbania representative and coordinator of “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” campaign that has brought together environmentalists and kayakers from all over Europe in protests to protect the Vjosa River.

Activists say the project’s dam threatens to destroy the Vjosa’s unique ecosystem.

“It is a miracle that a river like this still exists – it constitutes a huge chance for Albania and all of Europe. To block this river would be a crime on nature and evidence of the incapacity of European nature protection”, says Ulrich Eichelmann from Vienna-based Riverwatch and coordinator of the “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” campaign.

In a recent resolution on the 2016 European Commission report, the European Parliament advises the Albanian government to abandon plans for new hydropower plants along the Vjosa River and its tributaries, warning that the impact of HPPs is often not properly assessed to ensure compliance with international standards and relevant EU nature legislation.

The February 15 report also advises the Albanian government to consider the establishment of a Vjosa national park along the whole length of the river.

Turkey’s Kovlu Energji, a joint venture between Turkey’s Çinar-San Hafriyat and Ayen Enerji Anonim Sirketi is set to invest about 101 million euros in the next three years and produce an annual 305 million kWh. The Albanian government will benefit a concession fee of 2.2 percent equal to 6 million kWh in annual electricity production during the plant’s 35 years of operation until it shifts under government ownership.

The Turkish consortium, which had been awarded a bonus for its unsolicited bid in mid-2015, was the sole bidder in the tender on the Poçem HPP held in March 2016.

Private and concession hydropower plants have increased their share in the country’s wholly hydro-dependent domestic electricity generation to about a third.

 

Legal battle

Rafting along the Vjosa. Photo: Albanian Rafting Federation

Rafting along the Vjosa. Photo: Albanian Rafting Federation

Nature conservation organizations including Vienna-based Riverwatch, Germany’s EuroNatur and EcoAlbania as well as 38 affected local residents are challenging the Albanian government’s decision at court, demanding the suspension of any decisions and permits that pave the way to the start of works, citing environmental concern and failure to involve the local community in the decision-making.

Activists say the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) accepted by Albanian authorities is utterly inadequate with more than 60 percent of it simply copied word-for-word from other projects while flora and fauna was not even assessed at all as authors of the assessment reached a positive conclusion for the project.

“I have never seen such a poor EIA, the text is a farce. The EIA must be repeated and carried out according to international standards,” says Prof. Friedrich Schiemer from Vienna, who analyzed the EIA together with colleagues from Albania, Germany and Austria.

Activists also claim the fact that affected residents were not informed is another basis for the lawsuit.

“In the village of Kutë (Mallakaster), a majority of fields and olive plantations would drown in the 2,400 hectare reservoir and 90 individuals would have to be relocated. Nevertheless, nobody from the village was informed to date. A legally required resident information event did indeed take place, however, it was set an hour’s drive away and did not include residents actually affected by the project,” says the  Riverwatch organization.

The lawsuit is considered not only imperative for the future of the Vjosa and its residents, but also for nature protection and the administration of justice in Albania in general.

“Albanian laws are not poor, but they are too often ignored by investors, authorities and politicians. This disregard must stop or we will destroy our entire country.  The Poçem case is thus a legal touchstone for the rule of law in Albania,” attorney Vladimir Meçi, who prepared the lawsuit, is quoted as saying.

The Albanian government has earlier reacted to environmental concerns, saying that the Poçem and Kalivac are the only HPPs that will be built on the Vjosa River and the rest of the river will be declared a national park, making it the first natural river in Europe to obtain such protected status.

Concession contracts to build hydropower plants in the Vjosa and Valbona rivers have sparked protests among local residents and environmentalists who fear the emerging tourism industry and the unique ecosystems will suffer a severe setback.

Construction on the first of 14 proposed hydro-power plants has already started in the Valbona Valley, despite protests by local residents and environmentalists who say they will destroy tourism in the pristine area in northeastern Albania.

 

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times February 23, 2017 16:43