In a win for environmentalists, Albania officially designated one of the largest undammed rivers in Europe a national park on Wednesday. The park, expected to be operational by 2024, will span more than 31,000 acres and preserve both the Vjosa River and its tributaries, per a statement from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“Vjosa is a symbol of human history and also a very important part of the history of our country,” said Mirela Kumbaro Furxhi, Albania’s tourism and environment minister, per the Guardian’s Karen McVeigh. “Maybe Albania does not have the power to change the world, but it can create successful models of protecting biodiversity and natural assets, and we are proud to announce the creation of this first national park on one of the last wild rivers in Europe.”
The Vjosa River is home to more than 1,100 animal species, including 13 the IUCN considers globally threatened, per the statement. The endangered Egyptian vulture and the critically endangered Balkan lynx are among those that live in the area, according to the Guardian.
In recent years, though, the natural area faced a threat of development: The Albanian government had planned to build eight dams along the main river in a push to provide more hydroelectric power to its citizens, wrote Elena Becatoros and John Flesher for the Associated Press in 2019. Dams alter the natural flow of rivers, potentially causing temperature swings, sediment buildup, changes in water chemistry or toxic algae growth.
“Once dams go in, there’s almost no going back,” Julian Olden, a University of Washington ecologist who has studied the impacts of dams in Brazil, Australia and the U.S., told the AP. “You starve a river of water. It’s unsurprising that its inhabitants are likely to disappear.”
Activists and locals living in the area have warned that damming the Vjosa would lead to flooding and damage to the ecosystem, per the Agence France-Presse (AFP). Now, the river will remain freely flowing.
Such a sight is becoming increasingly rare in Europe: Researchers estimate more than one million barriers exist along the continent’s rivers, with at least 150,000 serving no economic purpose, the Guardian’s Graeme Green wrote last year. But a growing movement to restore fragmented rivers led to a record number of dams removed from European rivers in 2021, including 108 barriers taken out of rivers in Spain. Activists in the United States have been pushing for similar action, and late last year, the U.S. government announced the world’s largest dam removal project along the Klamath River.
Officials say the creation of the national park in Albania will address pollution, waste management and deforestation, as well as increase tourism to the country, writes Llazar Semini for the Associated Press. The project will begin with an initial investment of $80 million to stop wastewater being poured into the river.
“It establishes, for the first time, a conservation concept where an entire river system is protected and not just individual sections of a river,” Ulrich Eichelmann, head of the Austria-based advocacy organization RiverWatch, tells the AFP.