Press Release

World Water Day 2022 – Groundwater: The Liver of our Rivers

22 March 2022. The theme of this year’s World Water Day is “making the invisible visible” with a special emphasis on the importance of groundwater. Groundwater is quantitatively the most important freshwater resource as there is 100 times more groundwater than surface water1. In fact, it is where we source most of our fresh drinking water. Of similar importance, without groundwater, rivers would run dry and face a deterioration of water quality and ecosystem health. 

It isn’t magic that purifies groundwater and rivers

The groundwater filled sediments below rivers are a living resource that is home to a significant biodiversity of animals and microorganisms that are essential for purifying water. These organisms dwell and work in the darkness and are hardly ever seen, but without them, our groundwater would be contaminated and our rivers would be more polluted.

Groundwater fauna can be considered living fossils as several of the species living below our feet have existed isolated for millions of years. The communities are composed of many species of crustaceans, mites, snails, and worms. These blind and pigmentless creatures of the dark provide essential ecosystem services through unique eco-engineering roles: by aerating and reworking the sediments, they stimulate bacteria and help purify the water, breaking down contaminants and eliminating disease-causing germs and viruses. Living in the sediments below, they act as the liver of rivers.

Dr Christian Griebler, professor of limnology at the University of Vienna in Austria says, “During the summer of 2021, my research team conducted the first exploration of groundwater fauna in the sediments of the Shushica and Bënçe, two tributaries of the Vjosa River in Albania. In only 20 samples with 200-300 liters in total, we found more than 5,000 specimens of groundwater animals. The samples, without doubt, contain many species new to science.”

The give and take between groundwater and rivers  

Rivers are in constant exchange with the groundwater system they are embedded in. The water flows from the surface into the sediments, where fauna and microorganisms purify it, and then the water flows back into the river, cleaner than before. Healthy groundwater ecosystems with their “working-class heroes” rely on a functioning interaction between a living, dynamic river, and the sediments below.

This healthy connection between groundwater and rivers can be affected by the deterioration of rivers. If rivers are channelised or dammed, for instance, this can lead to the damage of the groundwater biodiversity and consequentially affect the quality of the water2. In essence, healthy rivers need healthy underground fauna – and vice versa.

Protecting groundwater and its unique biodiversity means also protecting rivers

Some of the most valuable areas for groundwater sources are in the Balkan. The rivers between Slovenia and Greece are without par in Europe and an enormous drinking water resource for local communities.

However, these lifelines are threatened by more than 3,500 dam projects. If built, it would destroy this groundwater source on a large scale. It is a race against time, to describe the many unknown species in groundwater and study their contribution to water purification before they become extinct because of the increasing anthropogenic impacts. Fortunately, more and more people are becoming aware of the Blue Heart of Europe and are fighting to protect it.

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Urban waste, an environmental problem on the coast

One of the most acute problems of environmental degradation on the coast is caused by urban waste. This issue, along with the problem of sewage are still unresolved and alarming.

Waste is collected near rivers, streams and near the sea. Their deposits go to landfills but these are out of standards, unplanned and located in inappropriate places.

The problem of waste management inherited from 30 years, has recently been in the special attention of the Prime Minister, who has undertaken a coordinated campaign with the local government that aims to clean the territory before the touristic season. Furthermore, the Government has drafted a plan that aims to provide proportion support to the needs of each of the Municipalities.

Waste in the Adriatic coast in Albania. Photo: Vista travelers

During the study on mapping the most acute environmental issues along the coast in Albania conducted by EcoAlbania with the support of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the perception of various actors was evaluated in the coastal region, including Local Government Units, various agencies, academic sector, private sector and CSOs. In particular, the lack of a landfill on the coast and the lack of waste recycling have been assessed as the major problem across the coast. However, this problem is perceived as quite essential by the local actors of the city of Durrës who evaluate it with 3.63 points out of 4 possible while in Lezha with 3.83 out of 4 points.

Urban solid waste and sewage management requires a new management system, as well as an institutional control through environmental inspectorates. However, in order for the model to be fully effective, it must be extended to rural areas of municipalities. Municipalities have local waste management plans but have not yet been able to provide a proper strategy for their recycling and disposal.

Another aspect is that Vlora for example, has great potential for development in tourism, but unfortunately the Adriatic beach already has 7 canals of used water. On this beach, even the signs indicating the presence of these waters, have been removed. For this, the municipality of Vlora is at the end of the process of wastewater and urban waste plants which are expected to be put into operation in March 2022. In addition, the Municipality has provided new rules for waste collection and their division by categories. Specifically, every year in Vlora 122,463 tons of waste is collected and these are not classified when they go to landfill, a process which increases the time of their recycling. In other words, the city of Vlora produces 76.9% of waste in its entire region.

According to the study, a recommendation for the municipality of Vlora is related to the need for a special working group in order for the municipality to provide statistics on how much waste goes to the landfill since the public cleaning actions have not been enough. In recent years there have been very few legal initiatives by the CSO-s to propose changes. Cleaning actions are not a permanent solution to the problem, but only serve to raise awareness among citizens. Therefore, the increase of local capacities regarding the control, management and inspection of waste in the coastal zone is in the plan of the Municipality of Vlora.

To mention the Municipality of Lezha, a feasibility study is being conducted for urban waste, to stop their volume through the Drin riverbed. In a discussion with the representatives of local institutions of Lezha, conducted on December 14, 2021, was emphasized the need for the implementation of a cleaning process of urban waste in this river. This process would also improve the conservation of the ecosystem in the Kune-Vain lagoon.

While in the municipality of Durrës, in the delta of the river Ishëm, is noticed the presence of hospital waste, while in Spille this waste is burned in nature. Despite the fact that the landfill of waste in Manez is estimated by local actors with 24%, this is insufficient given the high numbers of waste. Due to their inefficient management, the waste will be transferred to the other landfill of Sharra, but with the new initiative by the municipality of Lezha these wastes will be differentiated before ending up in this landfill.

During the discussions on environmental issues on the coast, it was concluded that the processes of restructuring and reviewing the plans of the Municipalities, are often done in a hurry and without being acquainted with the scientific conclusions and suggestions of stakeholders. In this way was recommended a consultation process between stakeholders, science and decision-making with local institutions in Vlora, Durres and Lezha and CSOs in coastal urban planning processes.

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Vjosa, still not a National Park. The government’s decision provides insufficient protection

Tirana, January 27, 2022. Yesterday, the Albanian government declared the Vjosa River a Nature Park (a category IV protected area) instead of declaring it a National Park, as requested by activists for years. A Nature Park is not the same as a National Park. The category of Nature Park does not protect the Vjosa River and its tributaries from destruction and does not offer the same opportunities for the development of eco-tourism in the area as the category of National Park (a category II protected area).

“This is a truncated response to our request, officially filed a year ago, in February 2021, that the Vjosa River and its tributaries be declared a National Park. Yesterday’s decision does not surprise us and in itself does not constitute a serious commitment by the government to protect the values ​​of biodiversity and natural heritage of the Vjosa valley”, said Olsi Nika, Executive Director of EcoAlbania.


94 percent of Albanians are in favour of a Vjosa National Park. © Piotr Bednarek/Wolne Rzeki

“The declaration of the Vjosa River as a protected area or so-called Nature Park is not an appropriate protection status, as it does not provide full protection of the entire ecosystem and its biodiversity. The current protected area does not include its tributaries, such as the Bënça and Shushica Rivers, leaving not only these tributaries but also major parts of the river exposed to threats such as hydropower construction, oil and natural gas exploration and the devastating development of the airport and its complexes and hotels. Furthermore, this category of protection will not develop eco-tourism and will have little or no economic potential for locals”, he added.

Despite the voices of environmental organizations, experts, residents, local government units, celebrities and about 50,000 citizens demanding the declaration of a Vjosa Valley National Park and the creation of Europe’s first wild river National Park, such a decision still remains far away. Through yesterday’s decision the government finalized a completely rushed process, without consultation and not based on scientific knowledge, in reviewing the national network of protected areas. Exactly this process has been opposed and criticized by more than 40 environmental NGOs, by the academic world and by a considerable number of diplomatic missions in Albania, including that of the European Union.


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Bern Convention calls on the government to declare the Vjosa River a National Park and decides to closely assess the situation with Vlora International Airport

++The Standing Committee of the Bern Convention expresses concern about the possible reduction of the network of national Protected Areas and delays in the preparation of the River Basin Management Plan++

Tirana, December 8, 2021. Three environmentally sensitive issues received attention at the meeting of the Standing Committee of the Bern Convention held on November 29–December 3, 2021 in Strasbourg: the protection status of the Vjosa River; the airport project in the Vjosa-Narta Protected Area; and the process of reviewing the boundaries of the network of Protected Areas. The Committee decided to keep the issue of the Vjosa River open as well as to conduct an assessment of the situation on the field in 2022 in relation to Vlora International Airport.

While the Albanian government is close to finalizing the declaration of the Vjosa River area as a Nature Park (Category IV), the Standing Committee asked the Albanian authorities to explain why the proposal of EcoAlbania and the International Union of Protected Areas (IUCN), based on extensive studies, to declare the Vjosa River a National Park (Category II) has not been considered. “With the support of 20 other organizations and based on the proposals of the IUCN, we submitted an official proposal to the Ministry of Tourism and Environment in February 2021 and to date we have not received any official response regarding this proposal. Although we are aware of the process initiated by the Ministry of Tourism and Environment to declare the Vjosa River a Natural Park, we continue to strongly support the proposal to give the Vjosa River and its tributaries the highest protection status, that of a National Park”, said Olsi Nika, Executive Director of EcoAlbania.

94 percent of Albanians are in favour of a Vjosa National Park. © Piotr Bednarek/Wolne Rzeki

The Standing Committee reiterated its deep concern over the plans to urbanize the Vjosa-Narta Protected Area, including the construction of an airport, and urged the government to reconsider those plans. The Committee highlighted that the natural values ​​of the Vjosa-Narta Protected Area are evident and a strong protection regime is needed. The construction of Vlora International Airport and the plans for urbanization of the Vjosa-Narta Protected Area have been opposed by a broad coalition of about 50 national and international organizations.

The Vlora International Airport project will now be under the scrutiny of the Bern Convention. The Committee decided to establish a group of independent international experts to conduct a field assessment by 2022. The field assessment mission will see in detail the situation of the airport, which is under construction despite the fact that no Strategic Environmental Assessment for the Vjosa-Narta area has been completed. “The field visit of a special mission of the Bern Convention is an expression of the extraordinary concern of national and international organizations regarding the urbanization of the Vjosa-Narta area and the irreversible negative consequences of Vlora Airport in the biological diversity of Albania. We call on the government to protect the Protected Areas and to give up their intention to turn them on construction sites”, said Taulant Bino, President of the Ornithological Association of Albania (AOS).

Finally, the Committee also expressed concern about the possible reduction of the national network of Protected Areas. Among other things, he called on the Albanian authorities to cooperate with both local actors and the international community, such as the IUCN and the Energy Community Treaty, when taking decisions that could affect the long-term sustainability of nature conservation in Albania.

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