An important step was taken on November 28th by the Greek Ministry of Environment and Energy with the designation of part of the catchment area of the transboundary river Aoos in Greece as a Protected Natural Formation and Protected Landscape. The designation covers the area that was previously unprotected, from the boundary of the Northern Pindos National Park to the Greek-Albanian border.
This is a major achievement for the international ‘Save the Blue Heart of Europe, alliance and all the activists and scientists who have fought for decades to protect one of Europe's last free-flowing rivers. Following the designation of the Albanian part of the Aoos (Vjosa) as a National Park in March 2023, the coordinated and long-term efforts of the civil society organisations MedINA, Pindos Perivallontiki, The Green Tank, EuroNatur, Riverwatch, EcoAlbania, IUCN Eastern Europe and Central Asia and many other partners from Greece and abroad contributed to ensure that the entire Aoos river basin is now institutionally protected by the Greek authorities.
The designation of the area as a Protected Natural Formation and Protected Landscape is the first step. The next step to ensure institutional protection is the adoption of a decision by the Minister of Environment and Energy, which will set out detailed development control regulations and restrictions for the area. This move acts as a shield to safeguard the free flow in sections of the main rivers and tributaries of the Aoos River Basin and lays the foundation for the integrated conservation and management of the river basin but is not sufficient to ensure its full protection.
The full protection of the Aoos will be guaranteed by upgrading the protection status of the area to a National Park through the expansion of the boundaries of the Northern Pindos National Park to the Greek-Albanian border. This will ensure the entire river basin falls under the same protection regime and may subsequently be joined with the neighbouring Vjosa National Park to create Europe's first Transboundary Wild River National Park, Aoos/Vjosa.
Alexandra Pappa, MedINA's Freshwater Programme Manager, said: “What is needed now is this bold decision by the Ministry of Environment to exclude certain areas from the construction of dozens of small hydropower plants (SHPs), currently planned in the Aoos River Basin; in particular, the Sarantaporos River sub-basin, which until now has not been covered by any protection regime. From now on, Greece, together with Albania, have a pioneering role to play in the new approach to inland water protection worldwide, where free-flowing rivers are at the centre of attention and not just part of terrestrial protected areas”.
The President of Pindos Perivallontiki, Ioannis Vrazitoulis, underlined: “This decision by the Ministry of Environment is a first substantial development, an important first step to safeguard previously unprotected parts of the Aoos River Basin. With the documented scientific positions of the Metsovion Interdisciplinary Research Centre of the NTUA, the Department of Biological Applications and Technology of the University of Ioannina and other scientists, but also with the contribution of citizens' movements such as ‘Protect Aoos’, which have been fighting for the protection of the river for many years, the State recognises the identity of an ecosystem and the dynamics of a landscape linked to the neighbouring country of Albania”.
“The decision to designate the Aoos as a protected natural formation is one more piece in the puzzle of protecting the Aoos on Greek territory. The state has taken advantage of the scientifically documented proposals and listened to the local communities who, aware of the ecological value of the river, link their development prospects to its preservation. The foundations have been laid for a strong unified protection regime and a sustainable development plan for the wider area, which should be a priority for the political leadership of the Ministry of the Environment”, stated Ioli Christopoulou, Policy Director at the Green Tank.
Annette Spangenberg, Head of Conservation at EuroNatur, mentioned: “We welcome this move of the Greek government as a milestone towards the full protection of Aoos and Vjosa. Now, Greece and Albania should strive for close cooperation to create a transboundary Wild River National Park to fully ensure ecological integrity of the shared Aoos/Vjosa River Basin”.
Similarly, Ulrich Eichelmann, founder of Riverwatch, highlighted: “This decision is a promising step. However, the goal is to protect the whole free flowing Aoos rivernet, including tributaries like Sarantaporos and their smaller streams as a National Park. A bilateral Aoos/Vjosa Wild River National Park would protect an entire river system. That would be unique not only for Europe, but for the entire world. It would also be a wonderful example of transnational nature conservation to the benefit of nature and people. Unite rivers!”.
“This effort coincides with the recent decision by the Albanian government to declare the Vjosa and its main free-flowing tributaries a National Park in Albania. As rivers know no borders, this is a real hope for a joint, long-term and effective management of Europe's first Wild River National Park. Finally, we support this decision as we believe that it can serve as a stepping stone for sustainable development for local communities in both our countries and the region”, indicated Olsi Nika, Director of EcoAlbania.
Finally, Andrej Sovinc, International Coordinator of the Vjosa Wild River National Park, claimed: “Protecting the entire system of the main stream and tributaries of the Aoos/Vjosa is a key element in preserving the last undisturbed large river in this part of Europe. With the establishment of the protected area, Greece has taken the first step towards joining a growing number of European countries, including Albania, that see the preservation of the natural environment - a barrier-free river - both as a conservation effort and as a development opportunity for the local populations on both sides of the border”.
- The designation decision is No. ΥΠΕΝ/ΔΔ ΦΠΒ/115155/3787 decision of the Director General for Environmental Policy of the Ministry of Environment and Energy (Government Gazette 6679/27-11-2023). According to the recent amendment of Law 4685/2020 (Article 178, Law 5037/2023), the designation of an area as protected landscape and natural formation by decision of the pertinent agency of the Ministry of Environment and Energy should be followed by a decision of the Minister of Environment and Energy, setting out detailed development control regulations and restrictions for all activities within the protected landscape and natural formation. The designation of a National Park is a separate process which requires the preparation of Special Environmental Studies (SESs).
- Currently, the Ministry of Environment and Energy is preparing the Special Environmental Studies for all Natura 2000 sites in Greece and for the existing National Parks. The organisations of the ‘Save the Blue Heart of Europe’ campaign have participated in the consultation of the SES 11a: Natura 2000 sites of the Regional Units of Thesprotia, Ioannina and Grevena - Eastern Section, by submitting comments so that this area can be included in the Northern Pindos National Park: https://ypen.gov.gr/diavouleusi/forums/forum/dimosia-diavoyleysi-toy-ergoy-ekponisi-eidikon-perivallontikon-meleton-syntaxi-proedrikon-diatagmaton-prostasias-kai-schedion-diacheirisis-gia-tis-perioches-toy-diktyoy-natura-2000/epm-11a-perioches-natura-2000-ton-perifereiakon-enotiton-thesprotias-ioanninon-kai-grevenon/
- Aoos/Vjosa: The Aoos/Vjosa River is one of the last big free-flowing rivers in Europe outside the Nordic countries. It flows for 270 consecutive kilometres from the Pindos Mountains in Greece, where it is called Aoos, to the Adriatic Sea in Albania, where it is called Vjosa. Together with its tributaries, the Aoos/Vjosa forms an ecosystem with a rich biodiversity of national and global importance.
- On 15 March 2023, the Albanian part of the river was declared a ‘Wild River National Park’, taking the title of the first wild river national park in Europe - where free flowing rivers and streams are now placed at the heart of conservation policies. For more information on the Vjosa National Park: https://www.vjosanationalpark.al/ & https://med-ina.org/vjosanationalpark/ & https://www.iucn.org/press-release/202303/vjosa-one-our-last-wild-rivers-becomes-europes-first-wild-river-national-park
- Rivers are the most threatened habitats in the world. In Europe alone, rivers are fragmented by 1 million artificial barriers (mainly canalizations and dams). As a result, populations of migratory freshwater fish species have declined by 93% since 1970.
- The need for conservation of the Aoos/Vjosa River and the institutional protection of its entire transboundary hydrographic network has been documented in scientific studies by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). More on the results of the IUCN studies and the proposals for institutional protection of the river to the Greek and Albanian authorities: https://portals.iucn.org/library/node/51377 & https://portals.iucn.org/library/node/49471