Europe’s First Wild River National Park


Europe’s First Wild River National Park


Europe’s first Wild River National Park and a potential model for the future of water conservation around the world. If you think about the Balkans area, a few things come to mind: Summer holidays, past wars but maybe not stunning rivers. Europe’s best rivers are located between Slovenia and Greece. This is where truly wild, living rivers can still be found and they are one of the most important hotspots for European freshwater biodiversity. While European rivers are the most dammed of any continent, many in the Balkans remain relatively pristine but according to the research conducted by RiverWatch and EuroNatur, 2,796 hydropower plants are projected to be built in the region in the next few years.

The story of Vjosa’s struggle to stay wild, which is of particular value, has been on going for well over a decade. The river flows freely from the mountains in Greece down to the Adriatic coast in Albania. For years it has been threatened by more than 30 proposed dam projects which would flood some areas while leaving others dry. It takes just one dam to lose the entire river. By becoming a National Park these dam projects have come to a halt. It marks a significant step towards the conservation and protection of this pristine river ecosystem. The regulations will ensure the river remains free-flowing and help protect over 1000 animal species, including the 13 which are globally threatened. They will also help to protect the livelihoods of over 100,000 people whose culture and way of life have been tied to a wild Vjosa for centuries.

“To protect a river you must focus first on the river itself. We want this type of river protection to be the rule rather than the exception”

Ulrich Eichelmann, an ecologist and conservationist with Riverwatch

We were curious about how the communities along the river, and the people who fought for this milestone, felt about it’s new status and what it would mean for the future. We thought it was important to spend some time getting aquatinted with this untamed beauty before meetings some key members of the community. 

We first met with Irma who runs a tour company in the small city of Permet situated along the Vjosa. Our senses took over upon entering her rafting centre. Irma was glowing and full of energy and the herbal aroma took over as she brewed tea using fresh herbs from the surrounding area. A shrine of goods covered the tables around her. It was clear that Vjosa was much more than just a river that flows through through these mountains and valleys. It’s the heart of this vast ecosystem which provides water, food and so much more to the people that live along her waters.

It was time to head up into the hills to stay at Chri Chri Guest House run by Gilberto, another pillar of the Vjosa community, and former mayor of Permet in Albania.

As the track to the Guest House came to an end, we felt like we had gone back in time hundreds of years into another world where old traditions and ways of life still remained. Gilberto shared with us his connection to the Vjosa river and how he got involved in the Vjosa campaign to protect the river. He also shares a little more information on hydroelectric power from a community perspective that you may not be aware of.

Albania generates nearly 100 % of its electricity from hydroelectric plants. Recent studies have shown, that in some cases, this green energy source may have unintended consequences, something rural communities along the Vjosa have witnessed first hand.

The Vjosa Wild River National Park has been a huge win for those working to protect it. It is a true testament to the power of people coming together for a common goal. Rivers like the Vjosa are the lifeblood of our planet. Billions of people depend on rivers for their survival. From agriculture to drinking water, rivers are the silent providers that sustain our communities, ecosystems and economies.

We savored our last night with one of nature’s treasures and the next day headed to where this whole movement to protect the Vjosa River began. The EcoAlbania HQ in Tirana which is the local organisation that spearheaded the Vjosa Campaign and the larger “Save the blue heart of Europe” campaign. It began as an idea amongst a few people who fought a decade long battle to have the river designated as a National Park, a seat at the table with the government and Patagonia alongside as a partner. We spoke with Besjana who’s been a key person involved from the very beginning.

The Vjosa Wild River National Park has been a huge win for those working to protect it. They now have a seat at the table with the government and Patagonia on board as a partner. It’s a model based on the participation of all actors of society working together. It is a true testament to the power of people coming together for a common goal! Furthermore, the model here is now also being used as a blueprint by others around the world to protect their rivers.

“It’s been slow and steady, but everyone is committed to listening to each other’s pain points. This is basic diplomacy, but it works. Let’s face it, world leaders are seeing pressures from citizens and business to change in a way that’s historically unparalleled.” 

Ryan Gellert – Patagonia CEO

The Vjosa campaign shows that the seemingly impossible is possible despite the hardships. They formed a civil movement of local residents, over 700 international scientists, NGOs, and well known artists that jointly campaigned to protect the river. It started with a vision to have the river designated as a National Park amongst just a few committed people, and just over a decade later is now a reality! We would never see rivers the same way after our time here. It was an inspiring reminder that the real power lies with us, the people.