The Valbona River in Peril

The Albanian government won’t save an ecologically and culturally significant river from hydropower, advocates say. But maybe its people will.

In Northern Albania, the icy Valbona River flows from deep inside Valbona Valley National Park. The river is home to otters and many species of birds, and is important to people in the Tropojë region and the mountain villages along its banks. In 2014, locals learned about 14 proposed hydropower projects along the river when bulldozers rolled in to start construction. These plants would be spread along a 30-kilometer stretch of the river, with eight located inside the park and six threatening wildlife habitats protected by the Bern Convention. Since then, residents have struggled to get accurate information about the construction plans. Among them is Catherine Bohne, who immigrated to Albania a decade ago and who now dedicates much of her energy to stop the construction on the river.

photo of valbona river
There are currently 14 small-scale hydropower plants planned along Albania’s Valbona River, eight of which are planned within the Valbona Valley National Park. Photo by Judith / Flickr.

While much of the United States and the rest of Europe are removing dams, the Balkans is ramping up hydropower construction. According to EcoAlbania, there are 540 hydropower plants planned for construction in Albania alone. At least 60 of those are located in national parks or protected areas.

There are three primary methods of generating electricity with hydropower: dams, diversion or run-of-river, and pumped storage. On smaller rivers, developers often choose run-of-river technology, which diverts water into canals or underground tunnels before spitting it back onto the riverbed downstream. These structures are known as small-scale hydropower plants, or SHPs, because they produce below 10 megawatts of energy. Using diversion technology does not mean SHPs are good for the river, however. In a SHP, the levels of the river fluctuate between drought and flood levels on a daily basis, and these oscillating conditions can change the way sediment, rocks, and fish move up or down the river. These are the types of plants proposed on the Valbona.

The company holding the concession contracts to develop SHPs on the Valbona River is known as Gener2. One of Albania’s most powerful enterprises, Gener2 has a wide portfolio of commercial and residential developments, energy infrastructure, and even a news station, which resulted in a controversial partnership with CNN International.

For some locals who have taken action against hydropower development, Gener2 is their primary opponent.

But wait, isn’t small-scale hydropower renewable, green energy? In a region of intermittent electricity, shouldn’t residents be pleased with the prospect of new energy? And in an impoverished region of Albania, shouldn’t locals be willing to trade their small agricultural vocations for construction jobs? While hydropower may be renewable and these plants do promise some employment opportunities, beneath these questions lie a list of concerns many residents have in developing the Valbona.

For one, the projects may not economically help Valbona residents as much as developers have promised. Relatively little electricity is harvested from SHPs. And whatever electricity is produced goes right to the national grid — it doesn’t necessarily make local electricity more reliable. Plus, some argue that the idea that these plants will bring in new jobs is over-stated. It’s been shown, most recently by the CCE Bankwatch Network, that across the Western Balkans, hydropower jobs dry up once construction is complete.

A few months after the bulldozers arrived, when locals tried to voice these concerns, Gener2 told them that they should have spoken up in at recent townhall meeting. This left folks scratching their heads; this was the first anyone had heard of a townhall meeting. Then, Catherine Bohne discovered the records of a meeting dated April 2013, along with twenty signatures approving the project. Two of the signatures seemed fishy. They were signatures of residents known to be dead. More red flags appeared when Bohne noticed that the other signatures belonged to construction company employees or members of a specific prominent family.

This spurred Bohne and others to found The Organization to Conserve the Albanian Alps, or TOKA, with the hopes of finding a way to save the river. Since its formation in 2016, TOKA and the community have played defense against hydropower construction on the legal and political playing field. They’ve also played offense by alerting international governing organizations, supporting sustainable tourism projects, and encouraging locals to participate in the collection of base line data.

Of course, this data should have been collected during the environmental impact assessments needed for the permits and concession contracts. A 2017 position paper by World Wildlife Fund found that these assessments of the Valbona River contained “very poor information with major gaps or weaknesses,” including missing information and disregard for European Commission and International Association for Impact Assessment standards, that should have prevented the government from issuing the contracts in the first place. Other holes in the assessment included adequate descriptions of wildlife habitats and a quantification of the construction’s impact on those habitats, and any consideration for alternatives. As a result, World Wildlife Fund strongly recommended halting construction until developers carry out a full environmental impact assessment, per Albanian law, and properly consult the public.

The regional court did order a halt to construction in 2018, but anti-dam activists say Gener2 and its subsidiary Dragobia Energy continued construction while the case concerning the use of a falsified document to obtain the construction contracts bounced between the Tropojë regional court and Tirana National court. In 2019 the case finally reached the Albanian High Court. However, the Albanian court system is completely dysfunctional due to an undergoing judicial vetting process against corruption.

“As everyone in Albania knows, vetting has removed all but two judges from the High Court for corruption,” says Bohne. “Any case referred to the High Court is effectively dead.”

As legal recourse looks like a dead-end, grassroots protests are not looking optimistic either.

Gener2 has attempted to downplay dissention in the community, insisting that local opposition to SHPs in Valbona represents a small percent of the population. But advocates say much of the opposition has been censored by intimidation. Last June, the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights released a report entitled Communities Under Pressure that revealed intimidating behaviors by Gener2, Dragobia Energy, and their employees to suppress opposition, such as verbal harassment by construction employees, anonymous vandalism to protest signs, and physical assault to journalists by a security company employee hired by Gener2. (Gener2 disputes these allegations.) It also accuses the municipality of Tropojë of being complicit and even acting under the direction of Gener2 with instances of arrests and threats of arrest to citizens who oppose the hydropower projects. Citizens have also reported threats on their job security. Though TOKA has organized successful protests in Valbona and Tirana, the fervor for opposition has waned in light of these pressures.

What is there left to do to protect the river when the government won’t help and the people are afraid to act?

“We have to force the government to act,” Bohne says. “Where we are right now, the people are depressed. It’s asking too much of them to keep protesting. It’s time for TOKA to carry on the fight the only way we can, which is to go international and look for wider support in the EU parliament. This hydropower fight has become a human rights issue. Not only is the river being destroyed but the people have no access to justice and their rights are being trampled over.”

While waiting for the legal results, Bohne and her associate Liridon Mustafaj have dedicated themselves to finding new ways to showcase the value of the river, working closely with international organizations to explore new methods of action.

One method involves boosting the economic value of preserving the river. This summer TOKA helped launch a kayak school that is encouraging locals to pick up paddling, while also offering a new activity for tourists. In the American Bar Association’s report, locals worried that hydropower development would dissuade tourists from visiting Valbona, while 60 percent of interviewees said reduced tourism would directly impact their household income. By offering activities that get both tourists and locals out on the river, the river is back on the radar for domestic and international visitors alike.

Another method of resistance is to gather a mass of environmental data that make it difficult for the government to justify the river’s destruction. Currently, there is little concrete data specific to the Valbona River. For that reason, Bohne is constantly hosting researchers to study the river’s biodiversity and ecosystems. These researchers are also teaching locals how to monitor the river using low-tech methods, in order to give them the tools to determine the health of protected habitats before and after hydropower construction.

TOKA is also diligently filing complaints in the international realm with the ambition to hold the Albanian government responsible. In 2019, a complaint was filed with the Energy Community detailing the many violations of the 2006 treaty establishing the Energy Community.

These actions may not be enough. Yet the efforts show the resilience and resistance of people ready to protect their home. For Bohne, some days it seems inevitable that SHPs will eventually dot the river, and that the Tropojan community’s fight is a modern-day David and Goliath.

“What is being done here is antithetical to local culture.” Bohne says, “Traditionally in the north of Albania, irrespective of individual wealth, people have their fair share of irrigation, pastoral and arable lands. Rich people here don’t get to have whatever they want. Everyone has to be looked after.”

The case of the Valbona River, especially considering that it runs through a protected area, has shown us how quickly development can go wrong. The outcome will set the standard for how Albania will move into the future. Hopefully it will show us how quickly things can be made right.

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