Valbona River: A small community fights a big problem

Valbona River: A small community fights a big problem

The Valbona River is a river in Northern Albania, which flows 45km from the Valbona Valley National park, past the town of Bajram Curri and through more small villages until it joins the Drin River basin at Fierza. This river is home to river otters, birds, and eels, and it is also partially diverted into an extensive traditional canal system, which supplies irrigation water for most of the villages along the 45km stretch of the river. Don’t underestimate this river: although it’s small, it is a vital part of the community.

The Situation

Currently, there are 13 run-of-the-river hydropower plants (HPPs) planned along the river plus one plant which would dam the river and create an artificial lake, incidentally flooding valuable farmland. Three HPPs are currently under construction, one of which could begin operating soon. Run-of-the-river HPPs don’t use a dam to create a reservoir, instead they divert the water from the river into a tube which can remove the water from the river bed for up to 6km, and then deliver the water downstream where it falls at a higher pressure directly onto the turbines housed in the power plant. After the water runs through the turbines it theoretically goes back into the river.

The Problem

The problem with this series of ‘cascading’ run-of-the-river HPPs is that the water from the river is diverted into a tunnel for some kilometers, flows back into the river, but then goes straight into another tunnel (and on the Valbona this is planned to happen 14 times. Thus, the river will not only be virtually dry for long stretches, but will also bypass many villages along its 45km journey and all of these villages will need to find another water supply.

I (right) spent a lot of time brainstorming ideas with Catherine and Liridon (left)

The Plan

I spent four days in Bajram Curri speaking with Catherine Bohne and Liridon Mustafaj from TOKA, a local NGO fighting the planned 14 HPPs. There are many different approaches to fight reckless hydropower, but Catherine and I decided that we would spend our time together figuring out how to collect data on the river so that we could be more prepared to fight with facts.

Since I had no scientific equipment with me and I only had a few days in Tropoja, we decided to set up some data collection protocols so that Catherine and other locals can monitor their river themselves. Which protocols did we decide on?

  • Granulometry: measuring the average rock size along the entire river. This is basically used to classify the river grain size, which is determined by flood events. Once a dam is built, the redistribution of sediment from floods will be stopped. So grain size only needs to be measured once before and after a dam is built. And it only requires a ruler!
  • Water Level: monitoring the water level can be done with some simple gauges and can be used to see how the river level behaves throughout the entire year.
  • Discharge: discharge is the rate at which a quantity of water flows through the river and is important to monitor for many reasons, such as sediment and oxygen transport.

The granulometry protocol was easy (and fun!) to learn together. We also set up a gauge under one bridge, but now TOKA has all of the material and know-how to make more gauges. Finally, we tried to use an app to measure the river discharge at two locations. The app didn’t work and we’re in contact with the app developers. Hopefully, they’ll be able to process our data and give us an estimate for discharge.

Liridon painting our markers – used to measure discharge with an app

The Reality

Is having a huge scientific campaign and collecting a lot of data on the Valbona going to save this river from reckless hydropower? We hope so!

I also see a huge eco-tourism potential for this river. Liridon, who attended our Students for Rivers camp, wants to start a kayak school on the Valbona. And when I was taking the ferry from Shköder to Fierza, there were tons of German, Dutch, and Swiss tourists coming to Valbona Valley National Park to enjoy the culture and landscape.

Maybe Valbona is the perfect spot to host SRC 2021? Let’s see!

-Jessica Droujko

All photos by Catherine Bohne and myself.