The Vjosa is Europe’s last truly wild river, undammed and running free from its source in the Pindos Mountains in Greece through Albania and out to the Adriatic coast. Thanks to a historic announcement from the Albanian government, who have signed a commitment to collaborate with Patagonia on the establishment of a Vjosa Wild River National Park - it looks like it’s going to stay that way, too.

Back in 2018, we joined the fight to protect the Vjosa, and declare it a National Park, protecting the river through adventures - not destroying it with dams.

As many as 40 hydropower projects have threatened to dam the 270km Vjosa in recent years. Even one would block and destroy the unique ecosystem within the untouched river. Soon, that possibly will be off the cards, and the river and its free-flowing tributaries will become Europe's first wild river national park.

“If you build one dam, you block the sediment and you block the fish,” Ulrich Eichelmann, the CEO of RiverWatch, told us. “One dam can destroy it all.”

There are 69 species of fish which live only in the area, plus more than 1,100 species of animal in total, 13 of which are globally-threatened.

“The Balkan Rivers are absolutely unique,” Eichelmann told us, explaining how most rivers in Europe were dammed in the 60s, 70s and following “decades of destruction” - something Albania avoided as it was perceived to be unstable for investment after the fall of the Eastern Bloc.

Ulrich Eichelmann founded Vienna-based RiverWatch in 2012, a society focused on protecting rivers. Photo: Philip Bethge/Der Spiegel

Eichelmann described the National Park categorisation as “the King of Protected areas”, highlighting how it can both help to protect the nature of the Vjosa and create ecotourism opportunities which can bring new income streams to locals.

“You could have guided tours and trails, and educational programs for students and for kids to learn what a wild river is,” he says. “Tourists would need places to sleep and eat - all without damaging the area, of course.”

The Fight to Save the Vjosa - The Last Wild River in Europe
We speak to Ulrich Eichelmann, the CEO of RiverWatch, who is at the forefront of the campaign for a #VjosaNationalParkNow

After years of campaigning, and global support from stars including Leonardo DiCaprio, Eichelmann, the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign, and Ryan Gellert, CEO of Patagonia, made a historic breakthrough.

On Monday 13 June 2022 They gathered with the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and Minister for Tourism and Environment Mirela Kumbaro in Tirana, the capital of Albania, to mark the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding. The document includes agreements that:

  • Parties will work to increase the protection level of Vjosa River to the level of IUCN Category II: National Park.
  • The National Park shall include the Vjosa river and its free-flowing tributaries.
  • Within 45 days of signing this MoU, the Parties shall establish a Working Group, headed by the Ministry of Tourism and Environment.
  • The Working Group will deliver a complete proposal for the National Park to the Ministry of Tourism and Environment, that includes, among other things, the zoning and boundaries of the National Park, stakeholder consultation, and eco-tourism opportunities.

“Albania’s Vjosa is nature’s unrelenting force, the only survivor of the wild rivers of our continent. The last river vein that bears no trace of contamination from the industrial development that has morphed Europe’s rivers into animals tamed for the energy-generation circus,” said Rama.

Minister for Tourism and Environment Mirela Kumbaro and Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert. Photo: Nick St. Oegger

“Vjosa will remain the only wild water body that, just like on the day of its creation, will continue to bear witness to the wonder that once were the European riverbeds. Under the protective cloak of the National Park, Vjosa will stay intact for Albania, for Europe [and] for the planet we want for our children’s children.”

Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert added: “Albania’s leaders have shown vision and commitment today, signalling to the world their intention to do something unprecedented in nature protection."

The campaign for the Vjosa river and its tributaries to be protected by a pioneering National Park classification has been ongoing for years. Now, not only will it protect one of the great natural wonders of Europe - it will also set a precedent for the future protection of nature in Europe. It is a historic agreement, indeed.

Inspired? Read our full interview with Ulrich Eichelmann on the Vjosa!