Europe’s last remaining wild rivers flow through the Balkans, providing stunning scenery and habitat to myriad plants and animals. But hundreds of dam projects threaten to do irreparable harm to the region’s unique biospheres — to provide much needed electricity to the people who live there.
By Philip Bethge
How did Europe’s rivers look before they were tamed — back when they were allowed to flow freely through the beds they spent centuries carving out?
Most of the Continent’s waterways, like the Elbe, the Rhine and the Danube, have long since been hemmed in. But examples of Europe’s largely vanished wilderness remain. Such as the Vjosë, which flows unfettered through its valley in southwestern Albania, splitting off into tributaries that once again flow together in a constant game of give-and-take with solid ground.
“With every flood, the Vjosë shifts its course,” says Ulrich Eichelmann, a conservationist with the organization RiverWatch, as he looks across to the narrow ribbon of alluvial forest that clings to the side of the valley. “The river fills the entire valley,” says the 52-year-old. “Such a thing in Europe can only be found here, in the Balkans.” Then he pauses. On the opposite shore, a cormorant takes flight.
The Vjosë: 270 kilometers (168 miles) of river landscape, from the Pindus Mountains of Greece all the way down to the Adriatic Sea. Not a single dam disturbs the water’s course. No concrete bed directs its flow. And every pebble tells a story, says Eichelmann — of pristine mountain enclaves, of waterfalls, gorges and lakes.
The ‘Blue Heart of Europe’
The Vjosë is not alone. Several crystal clear, untamed rivers rush through many countries in the region. “The blue heart of Europe beats in the Balkans,” says Eichelmann, who, together with environmental organization EuroNatur, works to preserve these natural water systems….