A new airport near Narta Lagoon, in the Vjosa-Narta Protected Landscape, was approved by the Albanian parliament on 2nd February 2018. The government plans the airport to boost tourism in the south of the country. Narta Lagoon provides a valuable habitat for many bird species such as flamingos and the endangered Dalmatian pelican. It is situated in the mouth of the Vjosa River, one of the last remaining free-flowing rivers in Europe, flowing almost 270 kilometres from the Pindus mountains into a largely undeveloped segment of the Adriatic coastline.
The area is vital for bird migration along the coastline, part of the ‘Adriatic Flyway’ migration corridor which runs across the Balkans, the Adriatic and Southern Italy over to North Africa and is a route followed by water birds of Central, Northern and Eastern Europe. In an open letter to Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, CEO of EuroNatur Gabriel Schwaderer called for an environmental impact assessment to meet global standards, saying “We are convinced that a serious assessment can only conclude that the planned airport is incompatible with preserving the Narta-Vjosa ecosystem”. He warned that damage to the ecosystem would be “irreversible” . Schwaderer’s letter to the Prime Minister concluded “We believe that Albania as part of the most important multilateral environmental agreements (Ramsar, Bern Convention, Bonn Convention), cannot afford to lost one of its natural crown jewels along the Adriatic coast.”
In late January, as the government approved fast-track negotiation procedures with a Turkish consortium, a local NGO, Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA), had warned of the threats posed by the project to local ecosystems, making the following statement: “The construction of this kind of infrastructure threatens the ecological integrity of this area because of the habitat alienation during the investment phase and disturbance during the operational phase. In addition, this construction violates the regulatory and legal norms on protected areas.”
Parliamentary approval for the new airport had been granted the day before World Wetlands Day, held on 2nd February. The proposed airport site lies within the Vjosa-Narta Protected Landscape, one of the largest near-natural wetland complexes along the Adriatic coast and internationally recognised as a Key Biodiversity Area. Spanning 192 square kilometres the area encompasses the Vjosa River, Narta Lagoon and other wetlands, marshlands, reed beds, woodlands, islands and sandy beaches. It has also been nominated as a candidate Emerald site as an area of special conservation interest .
PPNEA raised awareness of the plan for the new airport, named Vlora Airport after the nearby coastal city, in an issue of their Land of Eagles and Castles newsletter, also raising concerns about the lack of public information about the project with environmental news rarely hitting the headlines in Albania. PPNEA struggled to ascertain and disseminate factual information about the airport, an infrastructure project which was framed as development, pointing out that Vjose-Narta is a "perfect location for eco and agro-tourism and the organization had established an entrepreneurial model setting an example that locals might follow.
The European Commission (EC) took an official stance on the airport plan in October 2020, in a report about EU enlargement policy. The report highlighted the fact that legislation on strategic investment raises concerns for the protection of biodiversity as it might permit large tourism and industrial investment in protected areas, giving the proposed airport in the Vjosa-Narta area as an example. Furthermore, legislation on strategic investment conflicts with other national laws along with international biodiversity protection conventions ratified by Albania. The EC recommended that Albanian authorities take immediate measures to review and improve environmental impact assessments for existing and planned projects including in the tourism and construction sectors.
A graphic of the Vlora Airport plan published by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Energy showed an airport adjoined by various development areas: naturalistic area, sports area, winery area, hotel and resort area, new marina, residential and agricultural (sic) area, beach and wooded area. In February 2021 36 national and international environmental organizations signed an open letter to Prime Minister Edi Rama detailing their concerns about the location of the Vlora Airport project, highlighting the threat of irreversible damage to the Vjose-Narta Protected Landscape from the project itself and the ‘uncontrolled and unsustainable development models’ that it would bring about.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed the Vjose-Narta Protected Landscape in their ‘Category V’ of protected landscapes, which includes areas with a distinctive and valuable character in terms of ecological or biological life, scenic view or cultural values. The letter pointed out that the location of the airport, in the Adriatic Flyway, would place the safety of aircraft and passengers at risk. Hundreds of thousands of birds forage and shelter in the area during migration, including large bids, like pelicans, flamingos, herons and gulls, of a size large enough to place people at serious risk in the event of bird strikes (collisions between birds and aircraft) .
In March 2021 a coalition of NGOs for the protection of Vjosa-Narta sent a letter to members of the European Commission and Parliament, calling for support in urging the Albanian government to respect its national laws and the international conventions it has ratified, and to reconsider plans for the airport and tourism resorts. The open letter to the Prime Minister had been ignored and no consultations or discussions with Albania’s nature conservation actors and experts had taken place during the project planning phase and the selection of the airport site. The letter provided details the conservation status of more than 200 bird species in the area. Of these, 123 species are listed in the Appendix II of the Bern Convention which Albania has ratified and 43 species are listed in Appendix I of the Emerald Network. With regard to bird species within the EU, 23 are of particular conservation interest while 63 are listed in Annex 1 of the Birds Directive. The letter was signed by 41 organizations: Albanian Ornithological Society Albanian Society for the Protection of Birds and Mammals Albanian Wildlife Rescue Team BIOM, Croatia Bird Protection and Study Society of Serbia BirdLife Europe and Central Asia Birds of Albania Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds Center for Environment, Bosnia and Herzegovina Centre for Study and Protection of Birds (CZIP), Montenegro EcoAlbania Ecomovement, Albania EDEN Centre, Albania EuroNatur, Germany ERA Group, Kosovo EcoKosWomen, Kosovo Finch NGO, Kosovo FOUR PAWS Green Home NGO, Montenegro Hellenic Ornithological Society ILIRIA – Protection and Social & Environmental Development Association, Albania Institute for Nature Conservation in Albania Institute for Environmental Policy, Albania Kosovo Ecologists Society Lets Do It Peja, Kosovo Macedonian Ecological Society Milieukontakt Albania Ornithological Society “Naše ptice”, Bosnia and Herzegovina Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania PISHTARËT, Kosovo Res Publica Center, Albania Resource Environmental Centre, Albania Society for the Protection of Prespa (SPP), Greece Society of Independent Intellectuals Deçan, Kosovo Sustainability Leadership Kosovo Vulture Conservation Foundation, Switzerland World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF Adria) Wildlife – Albanian Photographers Young Researchers of Serbia Youth Ecological and Security Zone- EcoZ, Kosovo .
In February 2021 Build Green Albania, a non-profit organization providing services to partners around the world, published an in-depth report, Vlora Airport Construction: Main Environmental Impacts and Cost Benefit Analysis. It explained that the airport site is a disused military airport near the village of Akerni. The soil in this area is poor and the land is mostly barren and used for grazing. However, with regard to concerns over impacts on birdlife, the airport site is located near Narta Lagoon and presence of aircraft and noise emissions could impact on the many birds that populate the lagoon. Vlora Airport would also impact water systems over a large area. Surface water resources might be affected during the construction phase as contaminated runoff could flow into nearby canals and rivers. In the absence of good drainage systems once the airport becomes operational rainwater falling on roofs, parking lots and roads could contaminate nearby waterbodies. In addition, airport generate a range of potential pollutants including cleaning agents, chemicals for maintenance, painting and testing firefighting equipment. Aircraft noise pollution would also cause distress to people living nearby. Since the closure of the existing airport in 1999 clusters of houses have been built at a short distance, 200 metres and 500 metres away. Noise from aircraft has an economic impact on residents as it reduces house prices. Light pollution from the airport also poses risks to birds and other animals as they are attracted to light sources. The report recommends relocation of the airport site away from the protected area .
PPNEA and EuroNatur announced that they would be drawing attention to the threat the airport poses to avian life on World Migratory Bird Day, held on 8th May 2021. The government had recently signed the contract for the project, in the absence of an environmental impact survey. EuroNatur CEO Gabriel Schwaderer said: “We are convinced that a rigorous evaluation could only come to one conclusion, namely that the planned airport is incompatible with the protection of the Narta-Vjosa ecosystem.” Zydjon Vorpsie of PPNEA said: “If the infrastructure project in the Vjorsa-Narta protected zone is carried out, it would set a terrible precedent and would be an open door to the construction of tourist resorts, airports etc in other protected areas in Albania.” For many years, EuroNatur and its partner organizations had argued for enhancing the protection of the Vjosa and its delta through the establishment of the first wild river national park in Europe, extending from its source to its mouth. This campaign had intensified in the lead-up to parliamentary elections held on 25th April .