Environmental concerns over Vlora Airport and development areas

Construction of a major new airport on the Albanian coast, along with tourism development on adjoining sites, is imminent. A map of the Vlora Airport project plan shows an airport adjoined by several development areas – naturalistic area, sport area, winery area, hotel and resort area, new marina, residential and agricultural area, beach and wooded area. The project is opposed by many organizations, as outlined in a description of the case on EJatlas, the world’s largest, most comprehensive online database of social conflict around environmental issues.

The Vlora Airport project plan map shows an airport and various development areas – hotels and resorts, marina, winery area, beach, wooded area and sport area. Graphic: Invest in Albania, 20/12/2020

A wide range of groups are concerned over damaging impacts on unique wildlife habitats. The site lies within the Vjosa-Narta Protected Landscape, one of the largest near-natural wetland complexes along the Adriatic coast, encompassing the Vjosa River (one of few remaining free-flowing rivers in Europe), Narta Lagoon and other wetlands, marshlands, reed beds, woodlands, islands and sandy beaches. The area designated for Vlora Airport and associated development is at the mouth of the Vjosa River, next to Narta Lagoon which is populated by many bird species, most notably flamingos and the endangered Dalmatian pelican. The coastline forms part of the ‘Adriatic Flyway’, a migration corridor which runs across the Balkans, the Adriatic and Southern Italy over to North Africa and is a followed by water birds of Central, Northern and Eastern Europe. During migration hundreds of thousands of birds forage and shelter in the area. Aeroplane flightpaths would be incompatible with flocks of flying birds, in particular large birds like flamingos, pelicans, herons and gulls. Birdstrikes, collisions with aircraft, might occur, placing both air passengers and birds at risk.

Local NGO Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA) researched the plans and raised awareness about threats posed to local ecosystems. EuroNatur called for an environmental impact assessment (EIA) meeting global standards. A broader alliance criticising the airport land developed. In March 2021 a letter to the European Commision and Parliament by a coalition of NGOs, calling for support in urging the Albanian government to reconsider plans for the airport and tourism resorts in order to protect Vjosa-Narta, was signed by more than 40 organisations. The concession to build Vlora Airport was awarded to a consortium led by Mabetex Group in March 2021, on very generous terms. If Vlora Airport’s passenger numbers and profits are not as high as expected the project could cost Albanian taxpayers EUR 138 million. Clauses in the contract state that taxpayers must pay up to this sum should the concession fail or be unprofitable.

Despite constant pressure from national and international NGOs, the Albanian government persists in supporting the Vlora Airport project. On 28th November 2021 President Edi Rama opened the construction site. When the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was published a preliminary anaysis by experts from Albanian environmental and scientific researchs organisations siad it was ‘baised’ and identified striking deficiencies. The most important aspects not addressed by the EIA were:

  • The designated area is in an internationally recognised nature reserve could result in sanctions under the provisions of the Bern convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats
  • Lack of involvement of international experts in the decision-making process
  • Risk of natural disasters such as floods, anticipated to increase due to climate change, not taken into account

Speaking in a TRT World video environmentalist Jon Vorpsi questioned the necessity of a new international airport with the country’s main airport located just an hour and a half away. Mirjan Topji of the Birds of Albania group said that Narta lagoon is vital for the survival of Dalmation pelicans and raised concerns over air safety should aircraft collide with birds. Owner of a nearby fish restaurant, Arsen Lambro, disagreed with government claims that the new airport will boost tourism, saying the destruction of ecosystems, flora and fauna would reduce the number of visitors. Yet construction of Vlora Airport is set to begin soon. In January 2022 local ornithologists said noise from trucks and excavators was already scaring pelicans and flamingos away.

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