The fight for the “blue heart” of the Albanian Alps

By Esmeralda Keta / BIRN

Numerous hydropower projects seek to tap the wild Valbona River and the many mountain streams that feed it, putting the environment and tourism-generated income at risk.

Valbona river. (c) Flickr/ Stef&k

The Valbona River is one of the most rapid rivers of the Albanian Alps, with cold and crystalline water, waterfalls and picturesque canyons, which attract tens of thousands of foreign and local tourists every year.

However, this entire tourist industry built on the tradition of hospitality and the beauty of nature in the heart of the Albanian Alps is in danger of disappearing, and with it, the income by which the inhabitants of these areas make a living.

During the last decade, the Albanian government has approved three concession agreements for the construction of 14 hydropower plants in the Valbona river and in the mountain streams that make up its catchment system.

HPPs are strongly opposed by environmental organizations, which say the dams risk destroying the valley, which is protected and enjoys national park status. According to them, the environmental impact studies that the investors have done for the projects have serious flaws.

Residents of the area have also come against the HPPs, who say that the energy projects have not been consulted with the community and endanger their income based on mountain tourism.

“The future looks bright, but if even one of these projects is built, it will mean the end of eco-tourism, which is based entirely on providing unspoiled nature,” says Catherine Bohne, an American citizen married in Valbona, who has been leading the resistance of local residents against energy projects for three years.

The three companies that have won concession contracts for the construction of HPPs in the Valbona valley – “Tplan”, “Valbona Energy Company” and “Gener2” – reject the accusations, claiming that not all projects are within the protected area of national park, while arguing that they are designed to have as little impact on the environment as possible.

The companies say that they have all the necessary documentation and permits for construction and that they have held consultations with the community.

“The real threats to Valbona are those who today sell themselves as Valbona’s environmentalists. They have built several-story hotels on the banks of the Valbona [river] without any permission, they have cut down the pines and they pour the sewage into the Valbona. They have even destroyed the trout, as they shoot it with dynamite,” complained Flamur Buçpapaj, the concessionaire of HEC “Tplan”, the only one of the projects in the construction phase.

The government admits that the environmental impact assessment of the approved projects has serious problems, but it complains that the contracts signed with the builders are difficult to challenge legally.

Since the unilateral termination of these contracts could have major financial implications, the government has set up a working group with the aim of finding a solution to minimize the impact of these projects – which should be acceptable to both residents and from investors.

“We are looking at what possibilities there are, but they are contracts that have the force of law and that have many financial implications. The government is looking at every opportunity to address the concerns that have been raised by many environmental organizations or residents,” said Dardan Malaj, spokesman for the Ministry of Energy.

The full article published by can be found here (in Albanian).

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