As the impact of climate change pushes countries to invest in renewable energy, southeastern Europe has seen a surge in hydropower development, with close to 3000 dams planned or under construction in the Balkan peninsula. Scientists and activists have raised concerns about the environmental impact of this seemingly unchecked hydropower boom on the region’s largely pristine waterways, the so called "Blue Heart of Europe".
In the mountains of northern Albania, the impact of dams threatens to clash not just with nature, but also with a unique culture. Here in the Kelmend valley, the highland Malësorët people are some of Europe’s last true pastoralist shepherds, migrating with their flocks between high alpine pastures in the summer, and lower valleys during the winter months. While this process of transhumance has received UNESCO recognition and protection in countries like Italy, Greece and Austria, where the practice draws tourists and spectators, in Albania it holds no such status. The Malësorët shepherds brave challenging year round conditions in a difficult terrain in order to eke out a living as they have for generations.
Now as Albania receives energy subsidies and loans from Western banks, dozens of “small scale” dams are being planned along the region’s alpine rivers, without public consultation and with little potential for contributing meaningfully to the country’s energy supply. These dams, along with changing weather patterns, pose an existential threat to the rich natural resources and biodiversity of the Kelmend region, and with it, the lifestyle of those who have inhabited the area for centuries.