(CN) — In a significant victory for environmentalists, Albania says it is making one of Europe's last free-flowing rivers into a national park, a key step in staving off the construction of hydroelectric dams on the river.
On Monday, the government of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama designated the Vjosa River a national park, capping a years-long campaign by Albanian and international environmentalists to prevent its flow from being interrupted by dams.
The Vjosa River – often called “Europe's last wild river” – is at the heart of a wide-ranging campaign to preserve rivers in the Balkans. Outside the Arctic and Boreal regions, most of the last intact river systems in Europe are found in the Balkans, scientists say.
Some 3,000 hydroelectric dams are at various stages of planning in the Balkans with about a third of those structures slated for construction in protected areas such as national parks and nature reserves, according to studies.
Two large hydroelectric dam projects were under consideration for the Vjosa River and others have been erected on some of the river's tributaries.
Preserving the Balkans' rivers has become the focus of international efforts with Hollywood star Leonardo di Caprio lending his support. Patagonia Inc., the California-based outdoor clothing giant, backed the campaign to preserve the Vjosa.
Albania also has come under pressure to protect the Vjosa in its bid to become a European Union member. It and other Balkan nations not already in the EU – Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo – are in various stages of negotiations over their possible entry to the Brussels club.
As a national park, Albania has pledged to protect the river from damaging economic activity.
The canyon-lined river stretches for about 170 miles from the Pindus Mountains in Greece to the Adriatic Sea. It is home to about 1,100 species of animals, including endemic and endangered species such as the Egyptian vulture. The park in Albania will cover about 119 miles of the river.
Despite being named a national park, the future of the untamed river remains in question. Developers and the Albanian government have talked about building an airport near its estuary, allowing luxury hotels to be constructed along its banks and Shell is seeking to explore for oil along its banks near Kelcyre and Permet, according to Euractiv, a European news agency.
Albania hopes to turn the national park into a tourist attraction and it has touted a cycling trail along the river endorsed by UNESCO. The new park will become Europe's first “wild river national park,” according to environmental groups.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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