Albania declares new national river park, backs airport plan
TIRANA, Albania (AP) — The Albanian government on Wednesday formally designated the Vjosa River and its tributaries a national park, starting with an investment of some $80 million (75 million euros) to stop wastewater being poured into the river.
Authorities held a ceremony in a move aimed at preserving what they called one of the last wild rivers in Europe, which runs for 270 kilometers (170 miles) from the forest-covered slopes of Greece’s Pindus mountains to Albania’s Adriatic Sea coast.
“Today we protect for ever Europe’s last wild river,” said Prime Minister Edi Rama. Albanian officials say the free-flowing Vjosa is largely untouched by development and human impediments in its course.
Tourism and Environment Minister Mirela Kumbaro said the national park would include more than 12,700 hectares (32,000 acres), including the 190 kilometer (120 mile) long Albanian section of the river, where more than 60,000 people live.
The river and its surrounding areas are ecosystems of substantial biodiversity and home to over 1,100 species of animals. Two of the plant species and 13 of the animal species are assessed as globally threatened by International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN.
The project will seek to address water and land pollution, waste management, and deforestation. Additionally, officials say, the National Park will create economic opportunities for local communities through responsible tourism, and help address depopulation.
Kumbaro's ministry has signed an agreement with Patagonia, a California-based outdoor clothing company that supports environmental projects, to assist in the plan.
“Standing on the banks of the Vjosa today, we are humbled to know that this exceptional river and its wildlife will be conserved forever,” said Patagonia’s CEO Ryan Gellert.
Boris Erg, director of the IUCN's European regional office, applauded Tirana for the decision and offered to support its implementation. He also called on other regional governments to show similar ambition and help reach what he called the “vital goal” of protecting 30% of the planet by 2030.
Albania's government has cancelled plans for eight hydropower stations on the Vjosa and its tributaries. Environmentalists say the dams would have caused serious damage to the river.
Authorities now need to resolve what to do with a half-built hydropower station at Kalivac on the Vjosa.
Environmentalists have also warned that a new, multimillion-euro international airport being built where the Vjosa River flows into the Adriatic near the city of Vlora would cause irreparable damage to the fragile ecosystems of protected lagoons that host flamingos, pelicans and millions of other migratory birds.
Rama rejected the criticism, saying a “file as big as a mountain” has been prepared on the airport’s environmental impact, promising that the project “in no way is a threat to the ecosystem.” ___ Follow Llazar Semini at https://twitter.com/lsemini
Llazar Semini, The Associated Press