Could hydropower lead to the demise of the largest wild river on the European continent? Many environmental activists seem to think so.
The Balkans are known mostly as being an area of Europe torn by geopolitical strife. That history has overshadowed the area’s important environmental value as the home of Europe’s few remaining wild rivers. One of those, Albania’s Vjosa River, is the largest wild river on the continent. From the mountains of Greece to the Adriatic Sea in Albania, it spans nearly 200 miles. It stretches through unspoiled wilderness. Thus far, it is completely free of artificial barriers like hydroelectric power dams.
Damming rivers for hydropower seems like a clean, easy fix for Albania and other energy-hungry countries in the Balkans.
But it’s a green solution that could do more harm than good to the environment.
These pristine rivers and streams are home to more than 1,100 wildlife species, many of which are threatened. There have been families who have been living in the Vjosa River Valley for thousands of years. As you might imagine, they have an emotional relationship with the river and want to keep it the way it is, and they are not alone.
A campaign to save the river is underway with backing from celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, along with outdoor brand Patagonia and some other well-known names. The campaign calls for turning the river valley into a National Park.
“According to an opinion poll that was conducted in December, 94 percent of the Albanian people are in favor of a National Park,” says EcoAlbania activist Besjana Guri.
Turning the land into a National Park would protect it from any exploitation. Albanian political leaders say they intend to stop proposed dam projects and to establish a National Park instead. But activists fear these are empty words.
The hydropower campaign
As part of the campaign, which also is being supported by international nature conservation groups such as EcoAlbania, RiverWatch, and EuroNatur, a short documentary called Vjosa Forever was created by Patagonia. The seven-minute film asks concerned citizens everywhere to show their support for a Vjosa wild river National Park. It brings international attention to the environmental disaster that could ensue if it remains unprotected.
It may seem strange for an outspoken environmentalist like Leonardo DiCaprio and a company devoted to the outdoors like Patagonia to be against a “green” energy source such as hydropower. On the plus side, it’s a clean energy method intended to contribute to the fight against the global climate crisis. As compared to other renewable energy sources, hydropower has storage capacity. It is also considered more stable and reliable than traditional solar and wind energy.
However, it is the only renewable energy source sending species to extinction, claims Patagonia. DiCaprio ads that the vast majority – over 90% – of the hydropower projects in the Balkans produce very little energy yet have major impacts on the environment and the people of the area.