An avalanche of raging white water explodes into a deep pool below, sending up three-story plumes of mist. One minute you are at the top of a rapid, the next you’re hurtling through the crashing spray. The river moves around you. We are in Vjosa river in Albania. For anyone who has kayaked, done rafting or has experienced in any form Europe’s last big wild river, the thrill of the adventure stays with you longer after you have left the wild streams. And that thrill may be soon gone if the project of damming Vjosa will get through.

More than 150 people – kayakers from all over Europe, Albanian parliamentarians, residents, artists, Albanian and international environmental organisations as well as the Vice President of the European Parliament – gathered at the banks of the Vjosa and called upon the Prime Minister to stop the projected damming of the Vjosa.

The Vjosa is Europe’s last big wild river. On a course of 270 kilometers – from the Pindus Mountains to the Adriatic Sea – she flows freely without any artificial obstacles. Scientifically, the river is largely unexplored.

However, the Albanian government has recently decided to have a large hydropower plant constructed and has already granted the concession to a Turkish company. The project “Poçem” will feature a 25 meter tall dam wall which will destroy one of the ecologically most valuable river stretches, characterized by gravel islands and alluvial forests. The bird population of this natural treasure has not even been explored yet.

The hydropower project Poçem would destroy this uniqueness in one scoop. “It is a miracle that a river like this still exists – it constitutes a huge chance for Albania and all of Europe. To block this river would be a crime on nature and evidence of the incapacity of European nature protection”, says Ulrich Eichelmann from Riverwatch and coordinator of the “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” campaign.

"Vjosa no dams" have written the protesters at the banks of Vjosa river.

The government says it will stick to its promise not to build dams upstream from a planned, but as yet unbuilt, dam at Kalivac in southern Albania. This would meet its growing power needs and protect nature on the upper reaches of the river.

"It is not possible to do both," Gabriel Schwaderer, the executive director of German environmental group Euronatur, told the crowd. "We have a clear message for the government: reclaim a natural park from the mountains to the Adriatic Sea. This will be unique."

"It will flood our lands. No one asked us, but we shall not allow it," said Luan Merkaj for Reuters, as other villagers carried placards vowing to fight to the end.
The slogan "Vjosa No Dams" was displayed in large letters on the grass as singers in traditional dress welcomed the kayakers.

Encouraging the villagers to fight for the beauty of the valley and the river, Ulrike Lunacek, the European Parliament vice president, said Albania was a candidate to join the EU and must respect its environmental rules.

To chants of "No Dams", she said Albania should ensure its energy grid worked properly before building dams. In its statement on the current Enlargement report in April 2016, the European parliament called upon the Albanian government “to control the development of hydropower plants in environmentally sensitive areas such as around Vjosa River as well as in protected areas....”, to adjust the quality of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) to EU standards and to better inform and include the public in the planning procedure. So far, these demands have been completely ignored in regards to the Poçem project.

“While EU countries are required to comply with the guidelines of the EU Water Framework Directive, these criteria have so far been met or even exceeded in Western Balkan countries – first and foremost in Albania. This advantage must not be frivolously dismissed on behalf of the projected hydro boom”, said Lunacek.

400 hydropower plants are planned in our country threatening practically every river, while the biggest potential – solar power – is left entirely eunexploited. 

Kayakers from Slovenia, Albania, Greece, Italy, Germany, Austria, Netherlands and the US participated in today’s activity. It was part of the “Balkan Rivers Tour” – an activity of kayakers from all over Europe against the looming dam tsunami in the Balkans. “We have been paddling rivers between Slovenia and Albania for 33 days. The grand finale of the tour is at the Vjosa – the queen of Balkan rivers. Damming her is unacceptable. We are here to take a stand against it”, says Rok Rozman, initiator of the tour.

On May 20, 2016, the tour ends in Tirana where the paddlers will march with their kayaks to the Prime Minister’s office to hand over a special gift: a kayak decorated with hundreds of signatures against the projected dams on the Vjosa and for the establishment of a national park./Agroweb.org/