The 169-mile Vjosa River, the last remaining undammed river in Europe, is under threat. Flowing through northwestern Greece and southwestern Albania, the waterway, which is fed by the Voidomatis, Sarantaporos, Drino and Shushicë tributaries, is the last river on the continent to be protected from hydroelectric dams, though there are plans to build a 90 MW power plant at Kalivaç in Albania.
The project is strongly opposed by environmental groups, who fear that changing the course of the river will harm biodiversity and tourism. So far, 120,000 people have signed a petition asking that the area, known as the Blue Heart of Europe, be protected. Last week, a group led by several environmental organizations, as well as Patagonia, the clothing brand, sent the petition to the European Bank of Reconstruction and Redevelopment (EBRD) in London, which is financing the development.
The petition asks that future projects be restricted in protected areas and that financing be diverted to fund lower-impact renewable energy sources. “120,000 signatures represents the largest petition response that EBRD has ever received on energy issues,” said EBRD Policy Officer for Bankwatch Fidanka McGrath. “The bank prides itself on moving markets, so we hope it will take this groundswell of global public opinion to heart and drive investments in a more diverse mix of renewables, while also applying strict environmental and social safeguards.”
Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, believes the dam investments are “waste of money and a moral travesty.” Chouinard, who produced the 2014 documentary DamNation, says, “Wild places only survive when people come together and confront greedy developers with a deafening voice. The unknown wilderness is most appetizing to those who exploit nature for profit. It has nobody to speak up for it. That’s why a secret paradise like the Blue Heart of Europe requires our most urgent attention.”
In the Balkans, environmentalists fear the unfettered construction of dams could drive the Danube salmon and the Balkan lynx in Macedonia to extinction. The Blue Heart campaign has already been successful in persuading a court in Bosnia and Herzegovina to halt dam construction on the Kruscica river.
Albania, which is experiencing a boom in tourism thanks to its breathtaking mountains, valleys, forests, rivers, and lakes, is considered the Mediterranean's last secret. Since 2000, the number of visitors to the region has increased to 4.1 million.
In the US, where only three percent of the country’s 80,000 dams generate electricity, the campaigns to shut down “deadbeat dams” have gained momentum in recent years. The working dams, meanwhile, negatively impact the quality of water, the movement of nutrients and sediment, and the survival of fish and wildlife habitats.
According to Ulrich Eichelmann, a Save the Blue Heart of Europe Campaigner, "To me and many others, saving the Balkan rivers is the single most important nature conservation issue in Europe. We are aware that the challenge is huge and even a bit crazy. But how often do you get the chance to save a continental heritage? One day, people from all over the world will come to the Balkans to see Europe’s Blue Heart still beating. And we will fight for it."