Albanian government approve new hydropower plants despite environmental, social impact

by Ardit Hoxha, Diana Kruzman, Shelby Grebbin and Margaux Maxwell

This story is the second in a series produced by reporter-fellows participating in an exchange program between the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University and the Albanian Center for Quality Journalism in Tirana.

In the Kune Vain Lagoon of northern Albania, a grim relic sinks into the past to reveal an even more uncertain future. Concrete bunkers that line the coast, built as Communist-era bomb shelters by the small Balkan nation, for decades stood as reminders of a powerful totalitarian regime. But in recent years, they have been disappearing — swallowed up, one by one, by an advancing shoreline that each year creeps further up the sand.

The shoreline of the Kune lagoon was formed mainly by sediment accumulation from the Drin River, the longest flowing waterway in Albania. But the Balkan nation’s reliance on hydropower, which generates nearly 100 percent of its energy, has led to the damming of multiple rivers that flow to the coast and brought with it widespread concern. The sediments that accumulate in the rivers are locked into these dams, unable to follow the water into the sea and replenish the country’s shore.A two-month investigation by the Albanian Center for Quality Journalism in partnership with the U.S.-based New England Center for Investigative Reporting found that in recent years, the Albanian government has approved the construction of hundreds of new hydropower plants across the country, despite critics’ warnings that the plants are accelerating coastal erosion and putting vulnerable populations at risk.

According to the National Agency of Natural Resources, the Albanian government has approved the construction of 338 hydropower plants between 2002 and 2017. Yet some environmentalists fear the projects will create significant shoreline damage.

“If you block the sediment transport in the river then the sediment cannot reach the sea and cannot create or keep the balance of coastal erosion with sediments,” said Olsi Nika, executive director of EcoAlbania, an environmental NGO based in Tirana.

A local fisherman and the tree stumps of the once forested Kune coastline. Photo: Margaux Maxwell

At the same time, the beach at Kune, and others throughout the country’s 362 km of coastline, are increasingly threatened by erosion. Kune’s shoreline has receded 400 meters since 2000 in Kune alone, while rising sea levels caused by climate change paint an even starker picture for the future.

And as the country continues to expand its reliance on hydropower, environmentalists are accusing the government of valuing profit over protection while urging Albania to diversify its energy sources.

The ecological limits of hydropower

To generate hydraulic energy, water running along a river passes through a turbine underneath the surface. The river has to move with sufficient speed and volume to turn the rotor, so that the magnets inside the generator of the turbine start to generate what has widely been touted as one of the most cost-effective, clean energy solutions throughout the world.

Albania’s abundant water resources and extensive coastline along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas has allowed the small European country to rely mainly on hydropower as its primary energy source, depending on the country’s waterways for 98 percent of its energy, according to the Albania Investment Council.

But this form of renewable energy has also raised some alarm.

“The first ecosystem that will be impacted by this process is the coastal lagoons,” Nika said.

Edvin Pacara, executive director of the Institute for Environmental Policy in Albania, recalls a vastly different coastal landscape in the Kune lagoon.

“I remember 10 years ago walking here and I had this concrete building on my left and I had bunkers maybe 100 meters on my right, but now the bunkers have disappeared into the sea,” Pacara said.

The environmentalist has been photographing the shrinking shoreline with the hope of obtaining a grant that would fund scientific research and monitoring.

“The problem is a multi-fold problem,” Pacara said. “The main cause is climate change of course, but a big percentage of this happening is also from dams.”

The world’s oceans have been rising at an average rate of 3.2 mm per year since 1993, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, an independent agency of  the United States federal government, and tides are predicted to rise even faster as warming temperatures release the water currently held in polar ice caps. But on land, the damming of the rivers to create hydropower plants has decreased the flow of small rocks, sand, and gravel from the mountains to the sea — meaning there is nothing to replenish the coast as the sea advances.

While funding for scientific research in this area has been scarce in Albania, other countries have felt the impact of dams on coastal erosion. In nearby Greece, the construction of two large dams on the Nestos River reduced the sediment supply to the coast by 60 percent, according to a 2012 study in Ecohydrology and Hydrobiology.

At present, there are no consistent statistics on how many operational and planned hydropower plants exist in Albania. Several government and private agencies offer conflicting data, but the most recent estimate — an April 2017 report from EcoAlbania — counts 44 existing power plants. The NGO says the government granted concessions for 114 additional plants in 2009 and 203 in 2013.

“The coordination of institutions with the role and responsibility of natural resources management … are fragmented within several institutions,” a 2018 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Albania report stated. “A consolidated water use database including [hydropower plant] location and status is not established yet.”

This lack of coordinated statistics, regulation and transparency, UNDP claims, demonstrates that the government values profits over environmental protection.

“The development of [hydropower plants] is strongly led by the energy demand and the increase of private investments, backed by financial incentives … [hydropower plants] are not developed based on a balanced planning system, but led by the energy demand and business opportunities,” the UNDP report stated.

Currently, three major dams on the Drin River account for the majority of Albania’s electricity production, producing1,350 MW of the country’s approximately 1,500 MW operational capacity. But hundreds of new power plants would increase this total capacity to at least 5,000 MW, according to an analysis of the hydropower plants for which EcoAlbania data was available.

Energy demand in Albania is expected to increase by 60 percent in 2020, according to the International Hydropower Association. But the country also aims to sell its energy in the European market, Albania’s energy and infrastructure minister Damian Gjiknuri announced in March of this year.

Plans for the construction of small hydropower plants increased under former Prime Minister Sali Berisha, who personally inaugurated a plant in 2012.

“Any comment against the hydropower plants has only bad intentions and a cynical envy, which derive from close party interests or business interests,” Berisha told the Top Channel television outlet at the time. “I guarantee you that the concession’s race has been and will be one of the most important pages in the history of the Albanian market, which will turn Albania into a small super power in the region.”

Controversy has also followed many hydropower developments in the country. In 2011, the former prime minister — and current president — Ilir Meta was embroiled in an alleged corruption scandal that involved a video tape purporting to show him requesting a concession be given to a specific company in exchange for a bribe. Albanian experts denounced the video as fake, while American and British experts stated that the tape was authentic.

The Albanian Ministry of Tourism and Environment, responsible for approving hydropower licenses and assessing environmental impact, did not respond to requests for comment, including questions about whether the government suspected corruption was at play in the hydropower plant concession process.

Tree stumps along the Kune Lagoon in 2008. Photo: Edvin Pacara

Ultimately, Meta was found not guilty, but activists such as Nika still believe bribes play a major role in the granting of hydropower concessions.

“There is no other way of getting energy that harms the environment more than hydropower does,” Nika said. “I am completely convinced of this.”

Working against the tides

Not all Albanian experts agree that hydropower contributes to coastal erosion. Some officials, such as Violeta Zuna, a project manager for the United Nations Development Programme, attribute urban development, deforestation and the use of sand for construction to the erosion of the coastline rather than the unchecked building of hydropower plants.

Zuna led a five-year campaign in Albania to protect biodiversity in coastal areas, which she says is threatened by the disappearing shoreline.

“Since we are a poor country, the people are more interested in seeing fast development and fast profit,” Zuna said. “In the environment, you protect nature and species for future generations. This means that there is no immediate profit — it takes longer and is not direct economic profit.”

But Albania’s reliance on hydropower has already caused problems for some residents. In December 2017, the government had to build replacement housing for people displaced by the building of the Hec Moglices hydropower plant, in the small town of Maliq in eastern Albania. The plant construction caused major flooding. Other communities, such as one near Pocem, are actively fighting hydropower companies because they fear the building of a plant will result in the flooding of their homes and farmland.

“We have to find a balance between economic development and protecting the environment,” Zuna said.

Fish and other coastal species are also at risk from the disappearing shoreline. The Albanian Ministry of the Environment, which in a 2015 document cites the building of dams as one of the threats to biodiversity in the country, has worked with UNDP to create Marine Protected Areas that would be kept safe from development. But these areas can’t halt the coastal impact of building on land.

“The unbalanced development of [hydropower] is expected to result in adverse consequences such as the loss of habitats and biodiversity species, deforestation, water scarcity and erosion,” according to a February 2018 report by UNDP Albania.

An uncertain future 

For people living along the coast, erosion means their homes as well as livelihoods could be threatened. Fishermen in Kune are now unable to bring in catches as big as they once did.

“We are having many problems because we cannot find the habitats of the fish,” said a local Kune fisherman, who requested that his name not be used. “In the last 10 years we have had less fish.”

A local fisherman and the tree stumps of the once forested Kune coastline, Tuesday, June 5, 2018. Photo: Margaux Maxwell

Albania’s future as a hydropower-reliant nation is uncertain. With a changing climate, rainfall in the country is expected to decrease 30 percent by 2040, according to Nika of EcoAlbania, which would make it difficult to generate electricity at a time when the country will have hundreds more hydropower plants than it does now.

“If there is a shift in the climate so as to cut back on rainfall in the area of the river’s headwaters, for example, then there would be less water running downstream, which means less generating capacity,” said Dr. Donald R. Sadoway, a professor at MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering .

Pacara hopes the country will turn to other sources of renewable energy, such as solar or wind, instead of continuing the push for hydropower.

In the meantime, ongoing erosion driven by human activity means the bunkers that stand guard off Kune’s shore may be swallowed up entirely by the sea.

“If the sea advanced in just ten years [by] 100 meters, you can imagine what will happen 20 years,” Pacara said, pointing to a dune. “Most probably this sandbank is going to disappear.”

The main photo cover in the article: Communist era bunker sinking into the Kune coastline, Tuesday, June 5, 2018. Photo by Margaux Maxwell