Albania is blessed with water but faces tough choices on environment, development

Achieving climate resilience while ensuring water security and energy and food security are key preconditions for economic growth, human prosperity and healthy ecosystems in Albania. According to a Nexus Assessment report published by GWP-Med and UNECE, the country has a range of opportunities to enable prosperity and preserve its natural resources, leaning on its water abundance. But it requires a Nexus approach that takes the interlinkages between the relevant sectors into account.

Albania, a small country in SEE with Adriatic and Ionian coastlines,  is rich in water and has vast natural areas of high ecological value. However, challenges remain in order to address trade-offs across sectors that require water as well as to fully capture synergies among them.

Albania is almost completely dependent on hydropower for the domestic production of electricity and more hydropower plants are yet planned to be built. This makes its energy sector exceptionally vulnerable to droughts and to the expected impacts of climate change.

Improper siting of new hydropower facilities and incomplete environmental impact assessments could cause strong impacts on ecosystems and risk conflicts with agriculture, a sector that accounts for a whopping 40% of employment in the Balkan country and 19% of its gross domestic product.

Farmers, ecosystems and investors in hydropower all compete over land and water

Farmers and environmentalists are concerned about the effect of hydropower projects. Their arguments are valid as agriculture and biodiversity are also critical for overall prosperity and sustainability. Albania is a net importer of food, so increased irrigation and drainage have great potential to improve the situation.

Beyond conflicts and trade-offs, there exist significant opportunities for benefits from an integrated and coordinated approach across sectors. For example, adjusting the operational rules of hydropower plants to allow for increased available volume in reservoirs during the wet season can ease the impact of frequent flooding and still not jeopardize the security of electricity supply. It is one of the takeaways from the report Assessment of the Water-Energy-Food-Ecosystems Nexus in Albania.

Experts wrote the new Report within the framework of the SEE Nexus Project, financed by the Austrian Development Agency (ADA) and implemented by Global Water Partnership – Mediterranean (GWP-Med) in partnership with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

Even with the said challenges, there are ways for stakeholders from all sides to find mutually acceptable solutions. With the energy sector in Albania being interlinked with water management and the preservation of biodiversity, and both being correlated to food production at the same time,  the Nexus methodology, being an integral part of the report and framework project, confirms that the coordination of different sectors and the integration of policy objectives is possible and much needed.

Albania is blessed water tough choices environment development
Photo: Meivis Struga

Data sharing and coordination are required for efficient flood management

In Albania, large downstream areas are flood-prone, and the absence of proper and strong regulation of hydropower plants and the related water flows could potentially aggravate the issue.

The authors of the report say that significant benefits in flood management could be achieved if national institutions such as the Institute of Geoscience, Energy, Water and Environment (IGJEUM), in charge of collecting regular data on precipitations and water flows, and KESH, the national power utility, join forces to adjust the operation of the dams.

An improvement in institutional coordination and data-informed operation of the hydropower plants on the Drin could provide significant benefits in flood management

The three largest hydroelectric plants in the country are located on the Drin river. Their operation is regulated by rules that don’t require KESH to have any data on short-term weather forecasts. An update that would require better institutional coordination and data-informed operation of the HPPs could provide significant benefits in flood management, the report reads.

The experts working on the project concluded that the Flood Forecasting System for the whole Drin River Basin, prepared by Germany’s GIZ, could be instrumental in that regard.

blessed water tough choices environment development
Photo: Meivis Struga

Long way to go to maximize benefits across sectors

The complex and dynamic relationships between food, energy, water and the environment go far beyond the example with floods, as does the list of the challenges. Climate change actually goes both ways; severe droughts have taken their toll on all of the above in Albania as well as in the wider region and much of Europe. It makes an integrated approach even more urgent.

There have been significant advancements in Albania in recent years in terms of cross-sectoral coordination, especially regarding institutional settings, the authors pointed out. They also warned there is still a long way to go in maximizing benefits across sectors.

The coverage of water supply and sanitation services in the country is at an overall 77% and 53%, respectively, but significantly lower in rural areas. The share of non-revenue water remains particularly strong – at 63%. It is the water lost due to pipe leakages, for instance, or just wasted.

Climate change can bring more flooding, but also prolonged droughts and heatwaves

Water utilities are facing significant challenges to their financial sustainability, the experts noted. Investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy in water supply and sanitation facilities will bring benefits to both sectors and reduce the energy cost of utilities improving their financial sustainability.

Given its economic development targets, energy consumption would have to grow. Nevertheless, decision makers must simultaneously address high energy intensity and the nation’s climate commitments.

Protected areas in Albania account for about 18% of its territory, with the government aiming to increase this. Forests occupy about 36% of the country’s land area. Illegal logging has been negatively impacting forests, which led the government to impose a 10-year moratorium on logging in 2016.

There are 626 reservoirs in Albania utilized for irrigation, but their actual water capacity is just above half of the nominal one, due to erosion and poor maintenance. And the infrastructure is operational in only half of the area of 360,000 hectares in total that it covers.

blessed choices water environment development
Photo: Meivis Struga

Nature-based solutions to address erosion affecting agriculture and dams

On the erosion front, experts pointed to a string of low-cost and multifunctional nature-based solutions for soil quality, erosion processes, generation and transport of sediment, floodwaters and storm waters.

In Albania, deforestation and indiscriminate human intervention have exacerbated the problem of erosion, resulting in sedimentation in the dams and lowering their available capacity, while also reducing available agricultural land.

Some of the suggestions are to include natural and artificial reforestation and install engineered ponds in the riverbed to slow water velocity and facilitate the deposition of suspended materials.

Forestation can also contribute to water quality.

Experts that wrote the Nexus Assessment report laid out some of the options for the irrigation topic:

  • A new role for local water users organizations (WUOs) in decision-making and possibly in managing secondary canals;
  • Improved coordination between central and regional institutions including WUOs;
  • Action plans and feasibility studies for improving the type of irrigation (focusing on drip irrigation) that would reduce water consumption and reduce the need for additional infrastructure;
  • Capturing energy synergies through, for example, replacement of inefficient pumps, the installation of floating solar panels in irrigation reservoirs, agro-photovoltaics, or even – if applicable – opportunities for small hydropower installations to operate outside the irrigation season.

In the last example, synergies or opportunities were found for investment in energy, food production, resource efficiency, climate action and the environment, all at the same time. It’s not always that simple – from the Nexus perspective, there could be tradeoffs or potentially harmful consequences of a proposal on one or more sectors. Policy needs to be calibrated in a way to cause as little damage as possible.

Main interlinkages – synergies and trade-offs – across Nexus sectors

When it comes to the need to expand and improve access to water and sanitation services and build wastewater treatment plants, the benefits are clear. More water would be available for agricultural purposes, pollution decreases and biogas can be collected from sludge for energy use. In the tradeoff section, there is the hurdle of getting enough energy to power pumps and the water treatment process.

Albania needs more irrigation, better water access and wastewater treatment plants, but also the energy to power such new services

The increase in energy demand could also be an issue for the required new irrigation and drainage services. Such an argument is countered by benefits from lower flood and drought risk and the preservation of biodiversity. Furthermore, new technology enables the deployment of renewable energy installations.

Conversely, securing sufficient water for ecosystem services, expanding protected areas and having stricter environmental permitting rules may negatively affect electricity output at hydropower plants and potentially disturb plans for new renewable energy facilities. Also, if there is more water for nature and more no-go land, agricultural activities are limited. On the bright side, improved environmental assessment procedures for the energy sector could boost farming sustainability.

Renewables aren’t always harmless

Back to the beginning, hydropower opens the way for synergies like installing floating solar power plants on reservoirs. It is still a relatively new technology and its proponents highlight the reduction in water evaporation. Besides, floating photovoltaics, popularly photovoltaics, use one of the cleanest energy sources, and Albania is craving a more diverse electricity supply.

European and global climate ambitions imply an acceleration in the expansion of renewables. The catch is that, from the food production point of view, it is dangerous to use agricultural land for solar power plants as they take up a lot of space.

Environmentalists have a similar argument about the impact of wind power plants on wildlife, especially birds and bats, and ecosystems overall. For instance, when the facilities are constructed in pristine forests on mountains.

For Albania, further enhancing the coordination of different sectors, the integration of their policy objectives and the mainstreaming of joint management practices and infrastructure planning through a Nexus perspective, could significantly reduce costs, increase efficiencies, assist in ensuring security of supply, and contribute to the country’s economic growth, human prosperity and healthy ecosystems.

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