Albania, UNESCO Team Up to Save Europe’s Last Wild River

18 Shkurt 2023, 13:29Society TEMA

The Albanian government announced this week it intends to make the Vjosa River basin a UNESCO biosphere reserve to enable the sustainable protection of the river, whose waters flow unhindered from its source to the Adriatic Sea. The announcement was made during a visit to the basin by Audrey Azoulay, the Director-General of UNESCO.

On an official visit to Albania on Wednesday 15 and Thursday 16 February, and ahead of a working meeting with Prime Minister Edi Rama in Tirana, the Director-General visited the historic centre of Gjirokastra, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2005. In recent years, the Organization has supported Albania in the rehabilitation of the city’s heritage houses and in the inventory of the city’s intangible cultural heritage, part of the promotion of sustainable tourism that supports local development.

A few dozen kilometres from Gjirokastra is the 273-kilometre-long Vjosa River, often described as the “last wild river in Europe” because its waters flow almost unimpeded from its source in Greece to the Adriatic Sea. The Vjosa basin is home to almost 1,100 animal and plant species, including 13 globally threatened animal species and two globally threatened plant species.

The Albanian government has decided to strengthen the protection of this exceptional ecosystem. Since 2013, it has gradually suspended hydroelectric dam projects that could have had a negative impact on fauna and flora. It now wishes to ensure the lasting protection of the Vjosa basin by establishing it as a protected area subject to “the highest international standards”.

Application for the creation of a UNESCO biosphere reserve

During Ms Azoulay’s visit, Mirela Kumbaro, Minister of Tourism and Environment of Albania, announced that she would be submitting the Vjosa Basin’s application to become a UNESCO biosphere reserve in the coming months.

Important regional cooperation on water resources
This initiative strengthens the already rich collaboration between UNESCO and Albania in regional water cooperation, with several projects ranging from groundwater management in the extended Drin River basin to the management of coastal aquifers and associated ecosystems in the transboundary Buna/Bojana aquifer.

A new major regional groundwater governance initiative was signed in January 2023. It stipulates that with UNESCO’s assistance, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Montenegro will ensure the joint sustainable and equitable use and protection of the Dinaric Karst aquifer system and its ecological resources

1.3 million km² of protected areas worldwide
Created 51 years ago, UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere programme supports States in their search for a balance between human activity and the environment. It is based on a shared mode of governance, engaging national and local authorities, economic actors, the population and experts to work together for the sustainable development of designated territories.

There are currently 738 UNESCO biosphere reserves in 134 countries, covering 1.3 million km² of protected areas, equivalent to the total surface area of Peru.

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