Investigating morphological quality and dynamics of the Vjosa River in Albania

Investigating morphological quality and dynamics of the Vjosa River in Albania

“Why did you come here to study an Albanian river?” young Albanian people seemed surprised about this.

My name is Giacomo and I just graduated from the Environmental Engineering Faculty of the University of Trento in Italy. This spring I spent a 3-month research period in Albania to investigate and monitor the Vjosa River in order to write my master’s thesis.

I heard of the Vjosa river some time ago when one of my professors invited me to watch the documentary called “Blue Heart,” produced in 2018 by Patagonia. The movie focused on the hydropower issue in the Balkan area. It was a turning point for me, at least for my student career: I realized that waterways, channels, and streams which are easily found in my home country, are not real rivers. Their hydrological regime, sediment transport, morphologies, and accordingly their fluvial habitats are altered in a significant way: sometimes for the safety of what already is constructed in wrong places, sometimes for agricultural reasons and water supply in general, and sometimes for electricity production. Especially in contexts where anthropic impact is low, and where good environmental governance is lacking (as can be many countries in the Balkan area), the exploitation of hydropower potential by investors seems to have no brakes and clashes with the absence of a national data collection system.

This intrigued me: my future had to look to rivers, and it started precisely in March 2019 in Tirana.

The Vjosa River

I interpret the question at the beginning of this blog, which I was asked several times during my period of stay in Albania, in two ways: young people look abroad for their future (distrust in their own country is very high) so it can be strange to meet someone doing the opposite; on the other hand, they are not really aware of the uniqueness of the Vjosa river, which is considered a river among many.

But the Vjosa is not a river among many and some numbers could help in describing the extraordinary riverine ecosystem and biodiversity: 31 species of fish, 378 of terrestrial invertebrates, 14 of amphibians and reptiles and the presence of the European otter were recorded in just one week (see [Shumka et al., 2018], [Frank, 2018] for more details). Two of the above-mentioned species were totally unknown to the scientific world before. I remember the first time I saw the Vjosa river: after seeing pictures and reading many articles about it, that river impressed me for its dimensions and naturalness.

Panoramic view of the Vjosa River between Çarshovë and Përmet.

The difficulties I encountered in the exploration of the area, mainly due to the absence of roads and paths, made it seem wilder and wilder to my eyes. During my exploration, I collected many opinions from local people (shepherds, farmers, fishers, rangers, people working in the field of international cooperation) and I was able to see the connection between their activities and the presence of such a natural river.

The answer is not complete yet: Vjosa might be the best river in the world (and probably it is!) but it is very important to study it also for other reasons:

  • To prove the uniqueness of the Vjosa River so that it can be preserved in the future.
  • To add a scientific work to the weak cognitive framework of the area: this results in awareness-raising.
  • To establish an hydro-morphological reference point of a river threatened by hydropower and that could undergo big changes following the installation of large dams along its main course. For this reason, it would be important to know what was its “natural” state of today and to also properly manage the river and understand its changes after it has been impacted.

Within this context, the thesis work was framed and its “technical” goals were:

  • To define the morphological quality at basin scale.
  • To describe the morphological dynamics at reach scale.

Before giving you some more details about the work, a brief review of some key terminology regarding the scale at which a river can be looked at: when we talk about the basin, we mean the overall land around a river, that collects the water drained to the tributaries (called the watershed), then to the main stem of the river, and finally to the sea; the reach, on the other hand, is a single segment of the river defined by homogeneous natural or anthropic features.

Basin Scale

Let’s take a step back: in the year 2000, the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD, [European Parliament & Council, 2000]), set environmental goals for the member states, to maintain and improve streams and rivers to a good ecological status, and in the definition of “good status” also introduced the term “hydro-morphology.” This meant that it was required to also consider any modifications to flow and sediment regime, river morphology, and lateral channel mobility. Before the implementation of the WFD, most countries only defined the status based on water quality and biological indicators. Several methods have been adopted to implement the WFD in European countries. One of them, the Morphological Quality Index (MQI, [Rinaldi et al., 2016]), is a morphological assessment procedure based on a geomorphological approach. It was initially developed to be specifically suitable for the Italian context and consequently verified and expanded to cover the full range of physical conditions (physiographic units, hydrological and climate conditions, etc.) and the morphological types of rivers at European scale. The MQI basically evaluates how large the offset of the river is from the so-called “undisturbed” or “reference” conditions (considered to be the “natural” state of the river). This offset is defined based on three components: functionality (river lateral and longitudinal continuity), artificiality, and channel adjustments.

To implement the method, it is necessary to first divide the river into reaches based on physiographic units, confinement, river planform, and discontinuities. This is done through an intensive fieldwork campaign and using remote-sensing data (such as satellite pictures). This allows one to compare the “now” state with its “natural” (i.e. reference) state. To collect additional information that cannot be assessed from images, going to the field becomes vital. Given the size of the river, I carried surveys out by car, bike, and boat, exploring 192 km of river, collecting up to 28 indicators referring to the three MQI components.

Photographic campaign in a river reach upstream of Petran. Date: 23 April 2019.

Finally, an assessment can be performed and, as expected, the index score of the Vjosa River turned out to be high for about the 98{9732530ecde0c3ed17d6f811556787aa809502cede5318f0b96ca6f643c491f0} of the total length of the Albanian main branch and good for the remaining 2{9732530ecde0c3ed17d6f811556787aa809502cede5318f0b96ca6f643c491f0}. Such a result is almost unique, at least in Europe, and this means that the river shows very low or no human impact. As a comparison, and to give you an idea of how important this result is, only less than 20{9732530ecde0c3ed17d6f811556787aa809502cede5318f0b96ca6f643c491f0} of the total length of the rivers in Germany were found to be in good to optimal morphological status in 2001 [Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und Reaktorsicherheit, 2001]. What usually happens is that the morphological quality of a river gradually decreases proceeding downstream due to the accumulation of different impacts.

Reach Scale

We also wanted to further investigate the Vjosa’s recent morpho-dynamics at the reach scale. To do this I used two complementary methodologies: a simplified hydraulic modeling and multi-temporal satellite imagery analysis.

First, the identification of a reach of interest was crucial. The reach between Kalivaç and Poçem was selected for its fluvial morphology (braided, not composed of just a single channel, high dynamics is expected) and for the availability of recent data of a hydrometric station located within the reach. Two large dams are planned to be built at the end of this reach (one already in construction in Kalivaç) and this environmental conflict makes the reach even more interesting to study; to also have a morphodynamic “reference condition.”

Using the hydraulic model, it is possible to recreate (in a simplified way) how the river form changes following floods. I then compared the results by looking at satellite pictures from the European Sentinel-2 satellite mission started in 2015 [ESA – Sentinel-2, no date]. From the images, we can classify the different classes composing the riverbed (water, gravel, and vegetation). By looking at how the scenes evolve over time, we can understand how floods affect the river morphodynamics.

The satellite imagery analysis relates to the 2015-2018 period and 11 images of the Earth observation mission were selected and analyzed. An interesting output is that during this time about 75{9732530ecde0c3ed17d6f811556787aa809502cede5318f0b96ca6f643c491f0} of the riverbed has changed its morphological class at least once; the remaining 25{9732530ecde0c3ed17d6f811556787aa809502cede5318f0b96ca6f643c491f0} was composed of invariant pixels (classified in the image below).

Map of the unchanged riverbed in the analyzed reach for the time series 08/2015 – 04/2018 classified for the three morphological classes: 1-water, 2-vegetation, 3-sediment.

Why this data is important

In Albania, the absence of an integrated management plan for the entire river basin, as requested by the EU Water Framework Directive, has given investors the golden opportunity to engage in a rapid construction “boom” of hydropower plants in the valley. In a context where hydrological data is sporadically collected or not available for most rivers, the Albanian government gave permission to build up to 500-550 HPPs in the country (about 18 HPPs/1000 km^2, total capacity 2200 MW) during the years 2005-2017 [Miho et al., 2018].

During this extraordinary experience, I had the opportunity to realize that the Vjosa is something precious, not only for the water flowing inside it but for the delicate interconnection between nature and human activities. My thesis work aims to contribute to the creation of a large information network about the Vjosa River through the definition of a reference condition concerning the morphological quality and dynamics of it (given the naturality of the processes governing the river at present). The preservation of this unique ecosystem is an issue that greatly concerns us all if we want to keep living in a natural landscape and benefit from its ecosystem services.

Drone photo of the Vjosa River at Kuta, before Poçem gorge.

Giacomo Laghetto is a Project Officer at ETIFOR. He studied in Trento obtaining a master’s degree in Environmental Engineering (curriculum: “Integrated environmental and landscape design in the cooperation context”). He specialized in sustainable management of water resources, he is now working on LIFE project focused on Brenta River with the aim of promoting good governance and preserving biodiversity. He had research experiences in Kosovo and Albania.


Bibliography

Bundesministerium für Umwelt Naturschutz und Reaktorsicherheit (2001) Hydrologischer Atlas Deutschland – Gewässerstruktur. Available at: https://geoportal.bafg.de/mapapps/resources/apps/HAD/index.html?lang=de (Accessed: 23 November 2019).

ESA – Sentinel-2 (no date). Available at: http://www.esa.int/Applications/Observing_the_Earth/Copernicus/Sentinel-2 (Accessed: 21 November 2019).

European Parliament & Council (2000) ‘Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC’, pp. 1–5.

Frank, T. (2018) ‘Overview of the terrestrial animals of the Vjosa River, Albania: invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles and the European otter’, Acta ZooBot Austria, 155, pp. 187–190.

Miho, A. et al. (2018) ‘The Vjosa river system in Albania: a summary of actual challenges and agendas’, Acta ZooBot Austria, 155, pp. 377–385.

Rinaldi, M. et al. (2016) Guidebook for the evaluation of stream morphological conditions by the Morphological Quality Index (MQI), Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale.

Shumka, S. et al. (2018) ‘Fishes of the River Vjosa – an annotated Checklist’, Acta ZooBot Austria, 155, pp. 163–176.