Albania currently has two international airports, one located in the capital city of Tirana, constructed in the late 1950s and a brand new one in Kukës, opened just a few months ago. However, from the Albanian government’s point of view, another international airport is necessary to satiate the intensifying tourism and trade activities in Albania. Although the necessity of such an infrastructural project is publicly touted, the fact that Tirana and Kukës airports are not running at full capacity raised questions about whether the new airport is really needed in the first place. The rationality behind the chosen location of the airport is also highly questionable.
The Vjosë-Nartë protected landscape
The construction of the Vlora International airport is planned in the vicinity of the Narta Lagoon, within the Vjosë-Nartë protected landscape. This region is internationally recognized as an important bird migration area and a biodiversity hotspot. The waters of the last wild river of Europe straddle the northern border of the protected area. Mainly being intact, the river Vjosë is home to a variety of fish, insects, birds, amphibians, and plant species, with a significant number of endemic species. Considering that Vjosë is still largely unexplored, we don’t know yet all the incredible creatures living under its auspices.
The protected area of Vjosë-Nartë covers almost 19 500 hectares, and around 300 species of birds either reside in the area, use it as a resting place during migration, or spend the winter here. Nartë lagoon is classified as a Category V protected landscape according to the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It encompasses only 41.8 km², yet its bird population accounts for a significant percentage of global and European populations:
- 1.5 % of the global population of the Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus)
- 1 % of the biogeographical population of Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus rosesus)
- 1 % of the Pied Avocet (Recurvirsostra avoceta) continental Europe population
- 1 % of the Collared Pratincole (Glareola pratincola) continental Europe population
The Albanian government remains oblivious to the environmental and conservational importance of the Vjosë-Nartë protected landscape. The fact that it is internationally recognized as an Important Bird Area (IBA) and Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) is completely ignored. It is also important to note that Vjosë-Nartë is a part of the Emerald Network established under the 1979 Bern Convention which Albania has ratified, and that its wetlands meet all the criteria to be classified as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, also ratified by Albania.
The location of the airport project didn’t come as a great surprise to some, as there are old runways in the area used for military purposes until the 1990s. The local officials often use this fact as a justification when faced with questions about the possible environmental consequences of Vlora airport construction. If the military airport had no bigger impact on the area in the past, there is no reason to worry. However, there is a significant difference between small military runways and a large international airport, where tens of heavy aeroplanes land and take off daily. A project of that scale will undoubtedly have far greater repercussions for the town’s inhabitants and the nature surrounding it. The Albanian government is continuing with the plans despite many concerned locals, experts and environmentalists.
Once the construction begins, the local people and the numerous species of Vjosë-Nartë, will suffer from continuous disturbances until the airport is finished and opened, when they will suffer from continuous noise of the passing aeroplanes. The size of the airport and its proximity to Nartë lagoon promises to deteriorate the structural integrity of the natural habitat that provides food and shelter to numerous endangered species. It is really a no-brainer that such a large-scale project conducted within the borders of a protected area, internationally recognized for its extraordinary biodiversity, threatens to destroy the very thing that makes the site so unique.
Aside from creating a threat to the lives of numerous wild creatures, placing an international airport in an area with a high population of birds is also dangerous to people. It is now unknown that the collision between a flock (or even a single large bird) and the aircraft engine can cause the plane to crash.
Who is involved?
The Albanian government opened the tender for the construction in December last year, and the winner was announced a few months into 2021. Mabetext Group, owned by a Kosovar politician and businessman, Behgjet Pacolli, won the bid. Mabetext, with the help of YDA Group and 2A group, took on the job of constructing the airport, and the planned investment is around 104 million Euros. If the airport fails to meet the expectations, Albanian citizens will take the financial blow and pay almost 140 million Euros.
The fate of the Vjosë-Nartë protected area was decided without conducting a viable Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), which are legally necessary to obtain a permit for construction, especially when such a large project is in question. The potentially devastating effects of the decision and the Albanian government’s failure to recognize them led almost 40 national and international civil society organizations to gather and write an open letter to the Albanian prime minister, Edi Rama, asking him to rethink the decision.
In the letter, organizations recognized the problem of intensifying tourism and the lack of infrastructure to support it, asking Rama to relocate the airport to another area. They point out the region’s great eco-tourism and agro-tourism potential, which the heavy aviation traffic would undoubtedly deteriorate. Government officials responded to the outcry of concerned citizens and activists by stating that the airport would be built according to the rules of protected areas and with similar platitudes.
After being ignored by Rama, civil organizations took their concerns across the border, writing this time to the European Commission. The letter pointed out the conflicting nature of the project and national and international laws, but no clear answer was received from the commissioners. The construction began in late November, and the state heads were there to inaugurate the initial works. Little hope is left that the Albanian government will review its decision and conserve this natural treasure of Europe.