To mark the declaration of the Vjosa River (Aoos river in Albanian) as an IUCN Category II National Park in March 2023, National Geographic dedicated an extensive reportage to free-flowing rivers, discussing how Vjosa became Europe’s first wild river national park and sparked a movement for global inland water protection and conservation, essentially putting rivers at the heart of an institutionally protected area, in contrast to the approach taken so far where rivers are part of a terrestrial protected area. Well, what is needed to save the world’s rivers, which are currently threatened by complete fragmentation and, according to well-documented scientific studies, are the most degraded compared to all other ecosystems, whether terrestrial or marine?
“To protect a river, you have to focus on the river itself first,” Ulrich Eichelmann, head of the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign, tells National Geographic.
It is worth noting that the status of the Vjosa National Park prohibits the construction of dams or mining, but leaves room for other human activities, such as tourism. The Vjosa, which faced enormous challenges and threats from the construction of numerous hydroelectric dams, now flows unimpeded, showcasing its turquoise waters that sparkle amidst the mountainous landscapes of Albania. The road, however, has not been easy. A multi-year, large-scale campaign to protect Vjosa was developed. The campaign received overwhelming public support and involved court battles and lobbying against the Albanian government. The American company Patagonia supported these efforts with nearly a million dollars and played a major role in negotiations with the Albanian Government.
However, much work remains to be done, not only to make the Vjosa National Park operational, but also to extend it beyond the Albanian border to the Greek part of the river, namely the Aoos and its tributaries, Sarantaporos and Voidomatis.
Meanwhile, the protectors and heroes of other countries’ rivers are turning their attention to their own wild rivers, which could also acquire the same status, Wild River National Park.
Besjana Guri from EcoAlbania says Vjosa can “be an inspiration for all communities struggling to save their rivers. Our message to them is that it is possible to win this battle no matter how difficult it may seem.”
Read the full National Geographic article here.