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What can be saved? Dams threaten wild river

  • The Associated Press
In this June 25, 2019 photo, people raft on the Vjosa River near Permet, Albania. Some tout hydropower as a reliable, cheap and renewable energy source that helps curb dependence on planet-warming fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. But some critics like EcoAlbania say the benefits of hydropower are overstated _ and outweighed by the harm dams can do.

Felipe Dana / AP Photo

In this June 25, 2019 photo, people raft on the Vjosa River near Permet, Albania. Some tout hydropower as a reliable, cheap and renewable energy source that helps curb dependence on planet-warming fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. But some critics like EcoAlbania say the benefits of hydropower are overstated _ and outweighed by the harm dams can do.

One of Europe’s last wild rivers is under threat from development.

Albania’s government has set in motion plans to dam the Vjosa River to generate much-needed electricity for one of Europe’s poorest countries.

“Someone will benefit from the construction of the dam, but it will flood everyone in the area. They should turn their thinking around. What if they were in our place, how would they feel to lose everything?” says Shyqyri Seiti, a boatman and river guide.

It’s part of a world hydropower boom. In the Balkans alone, about 2,800 projects to tame rivers are underway or planned.

Some tout hydropower as a reliable, cheap and renewable energy source. But others say the benefits of hydropower are overstated and outweighed by the harm dams can do. Such barriers block the paths of fish trying to migrate upstream to spawn.

“So the fact that they’re sustainable or completely green energy is actually not true. There are still a lot of negative impacts. And those impacts we continue to grapple with when we think about new dam construction,” says Julian Olden of the University of Washington.

As pressure to build dams intensifies in less developed countries, the opposite is happening in the U.S. and western Europe, where dams are being torn down.

In Albania, there are plans to build eight dams along the Vjosa. Tourists drawn to the river’s wildness are worried.

“I love it the way it is. Because we know that it’s maybe one of the last rivers in Europe which is not under construction or used for water, electricity or something else,” says Jürgen Steinbauer, a rafting tourist from Germany.

Residents from the village of Kute joined nonprofits to file what was Albania’s first environmental lawsuit against the construction of a dam along the Vjosa. They won in 2017, but the government has appealed.

Meanwhile, the government recently awarded a new contract to a Turkish company on another dam site that has been abandoned.

Not everyone is against taming the Vjosa.

“I say, proceed with it (hydropower) because the environment will change. The infrastructure might change,” says Metat Shehu, mayor of Ane Vjose. “And we believe that these are good resources for the community.”

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This Associated Press series was produced in partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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