Hydropower in Albania: vanishing rivers strangle rural life. Hydroelectricity was meant to be part of the environmental solution. But in Albania, EU-funded hydroplants have created new challenges, Arlis Alikaj and The Parliament staff report
The riverbed has completely dried up downstream of the dam
By Arlis Alikaj
Investigative journalist with critically acclaimed reporting on environmental and social issues across the Balkan region.
22 Jan 2024
Global climate change has had a deep impact on Albania, a neighbour of Greece, North Macedonia and Montenegro, as it has become hotter and hotter over the last few years. According to a report by the World Bank, the country is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, worsened by its infrastructure needs and poverty in rural areas.
Albania, a flat and low-lying country with hot and dry summers, is prone to natural hazards such as droughts, forest fires and landslides. Last summer, several rivers dried up, leaving multiple rural communities without access to running water.
To curb the effects of the climate crisis, local lawmakers have increasingly looked to hydropower in recent years. A relatively cheap technology, hydropower uses the natural flow of moving water to generate electricity and it has been embraced by Albanian officials to help the country reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.
The government has signed no fewer than 130 contracts for the construction of hydropower plants in its Librazhd region over the last few years, with – according to the environmental office within the municipality of Librazhd – 45 projects already completed.
The European Union has played an indirect role in the rise of hydropower in Albania, an EU candidate country since 2014. Owned by 72 countries, as well as the EU and the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) provides project financing for local banks, industries and businesses with the goal of supporting market economies. The multilateral development bank has supported 61 hydropower plants in southeast Europe to the tune of €126m since 2005, and eight hydropower projects in Albania specifically.
But instead of addressing the country’s climate headaches, these EU-funded hydroplants have created novel challenges for Albania’s rural communities.
In Librazhd, a town in the eastern part of Albania that borders North Macedonia and is home to the Unesco-protected Shebenik Jabllanica National Park, four hydropower plants were operational in 2021, with five more under construction. According to both local authorities and residents, the construction of these plants along the Shkumbin River that runs through the area has caused significant soil erosion since 2016. Hydropower parks situated close to Shebenik-Jabllanica Park as well as Kuturman Park, a protected landscape, have also dried up a section of the river.
Water scarcity, meanwhile, has become a major year-round issue in the nearby village of Togëz, the site of the country’s first hydropower plant. Its construction has resulted in the destruction of irrigation canals, leaving fields that would have been planted with grain and cereal crops barren.
“They have taken away our water. They release it whenever they please and take it away whenever they want, all for the sake of the power plant. Now, we have to rely on the drinking water provided by the city,” Donika Murraci, a resident of Togëz, tells The Parliament.