Valbona, the river between tourism and hydropower plants

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times November 1, 2019 13:16

Valbona, the river between tourism and hydropower plants

Story Highlights

  • The current condition of the Valbonë river is reflective of the general ‘hydropower plant culture’ that has taken over Albania and the Western Balkans

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By Blerina Hoxha

 

Adinah and Benyamin, an Israeli couple, chose to visit the Albanian alps against the advice of their friends. “Our friends asked if we were insane for choosing to visit Albania,” Adinah said, whom we met on the way to see the waterfall of Valbonë. “But we had read a lot about the country, so we decided to see it for ourselves,” she adds, convinced that they made the right choice, as the late autumn makes the Alps look even more fascinating than usual.

To get to Valbonë, they rented a car following the long path from Shkodra, a choice they made themselves. “It was the most beautiful path I had ever seen and, believe me, I have seen the whole world,” Adinah says. What impressed her the most, however, was the clear color of the Valbonë river. “How is it possible that none of the tourism books on Albania have mentioned the clear color of the river?” she ass. “Your country is a tourist destination and you need to promote your natural resources as mu1ch as you can, especially the river and its color,” the Israeli couple recommends.

When we tell this story to Katherine, the American who has now become one with the Albanian culture and is in love with Valbonë, she explains that the river is so unique and has such a clear color due to the high levels of calcium in its rocks underneath. Yet, the clearness has begun to falter. In the middle of the Valbonë river, a dam built near the windmills in Quku of Valbonë, cuts the river in half. On the side, there is now a puddle which has taken a rusty shade. Some of the river will become part of a canal, the construction of which has already finished, and will flow in the turbines of the hydropower plant built a little below the area. The canal made out of concrete, some meters high, extends just a few kilometres along the river course till it is adjoined with the dam of the second hydropower plant, which is located in the middle of a big construction site in the area.

The current condition of the Valbonë river is reflective of the general ‘hydropower plant culture’ that has taken over Albania and the Western Balkans. The accurate number of concessionary contracts and hydropower plants is unclear; Government data reveals a number of contracts involving from 440 up to 540 hydropower plants, out of which, between 96- 176 are currently fully functional. The accurate number of hydropower plants in the river of Valbonë is also not fully disclosed. ‘TOKA’ company recently discovered existing contracts for 14 hydro plants in the Valley of Valbonë, eight of which are located in the protected areas. The International Union for Conservation of Nature classified the National Valley Park of Valbonë as a Level II protected area since 1996, in addition to being part of the Emerald Network according to the Berne Convention.

Three companies were granted concessions to build the said 14 hydro plants in Valbonë. Official sources from Dragobia Energy Sh.p.k., now in full ownership of Gener 2, revealed that the project consists of four hydro power plants, but the company is working on only two of them. Tplani Sh.p.k. is responsible for the construction of the smallest hydro plant which began in 2013. The Valbona Project Company was given concessions for nine hydro power plants, three of which are located in the National Park area.

Concessionary agreements which were signed with the Valbona Project company were criticized after it was revealed that they were signed at the end of Berisha’s administration, a time when the Democratic Party had just lost the nation election but the Socialist Party had not yet taken its oath.

The Gener 2 company confirmed that the project will produce a capacity of 22MW and that investments  have reached an amount of 28 million euros. Over 22 thousand families will benefit directly from the production of electricity through the two operating hydro power plants. The Dragobi and Cerem hydropower plants will be functional only during periods  of rainfall and the rate of electricity production will depend on the seasonal water excesses.

 

Less tourists in Valbonë

During the last few years, the number of tourists who visited the country increased rapidly.  The number of foreign tourists increased by 10 percent during the January-August period in 2019, compared to the previous year. However, the outcome was different for Valbonë. Despite being one of the top tourist attractions in Albania, along with Theth, unlike the past year, this time valleys were not filled with an abundance of tourist tents.

As a regular visitor of Valbonë, this past decade I was taken aback by the unusual calmness along the alpine trails. However, the locals have a few explanations about it. Astrit, the manager of one of the main hostels in Valbonë says that, constructions in hydro power plants that extend through the whole valley, not only damaged the beautiful panorama, but also caused acoustic and visual pollution. These constructions caused some Czech and Polish travel agencies to stop bringing in tourists, in addition to a few German and Isralei tourists no longer visiting the area. Moreover, elections and the political crisis seem to have driven many tourists away from Valbonë as well. Local residents, despite advocating against the construction of the hydropower plants, have been under the pressure of interest groups. 

Considering these imminent issues, earlier this year the American Advocate Society Center for the Human Rights investigated the reports that activists and community members, who rejected the spreading of hydro power plants in Valbonë, were facing continuous pressure by the state and the companies. Half of the interviewed citizens expressed that the number of hydro power plants and the construction process has had a negative impact on tourism, as the number of visitors has been in constant decline. Nearly 60 percent of them reported that the slow rate of tourism has directly impacted their family income as a result of lower business activity by restaurants and travel guides during the summers, decrease in demand for accommodation at the National Park as well as the demand for agricultural products such as milk, meat, fish and blueberries which are foraged and sold in restaurants. A common thought between the majority of the interviewed locals was that this general negative impact on tourism and the local economy will keep getting worse in the future if the planned hydropower plants will actually be built in the area.

An independent environmental study which was signed by ten environmental experts, most of them biologists and natural sciences professor, discovered a myriad of harmful consequences that will fall upon the flora and fauna in the area due to the constructions. The study also found grave errors in the official environmental study of 2013 which made way for the construction of the hydro power plants. In their research study, independent experts claimed that “the official environmental impact assessment report does not consider the direct/indirect implications that these investments will have on the development of tourism in the area, considering that a major part part of the services are sustained by ecotourism. The report simultaneously vaguely mentions the actual benefits that this investment will provide to the community.

The experts also proved that the water flow deviations through the tunnels and the reduction of the water amount in the riverbed will cause irreparable damage to the environment. Water flow is the main indicator of the nature of the physical environment in rivers and streams which in itself is an indicator of the biotic composition.

In the Valley of Valbonë, some endemic plant and animal species were found in addition to a few important habitats protected by international conventions (Berne Convention, Habitat Directive) and species endangered on a global scale. However, the Gerner 2 company, which is currently in the works of building the biggest hydro power plant claims that it has drafted and is in the process of implementing an all-inclusive plan for the environmental management and rehabilitation. This plan considers the implementation of a series of measures which will optimize the project in favor of the community as well as follow a hierarchy of facilitating actions to avoid and reduce any impact on the environment:, such as controlling and protection from erosion, preventing pollution, waste management, rehabilitation of areas impacted by the project, management of natural resources as well as the management of the area’s cultural heritage.

 

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times November 1, 2019 13:16