The Buna River delta, Albania. Photo: © MedWet/ C. Amico

The Buna River delta: working together for a more sustainable future

In terms of their ecological value, the wetlands in Albania’s Buna River delta are seen as the most important in the Eastern Mediterranean. From its coastal dunes to its forests and low karst ridges the area contains a wide diversity of geological types, geographies and habitats which extend into the wider Buna River ­– Velipojë Protected Landscape, stretching across some 23,000 hectares.

This Ramsar wetland of international importance is vital for biodiversity, offering a permanent home to hundreds of species and a migration corridor to many more: 320 plant species, 250 bird species and 107 fish species have been recorded here. A significant number of the Buna River delta’s species are rare or endangered, including the pygmy cormorant, the Eurasian otter, the golden jackal and the sturgeon. Its old-growth oak forests are among the finest in Europe.

Photo: © MedWet/C. Amico

But it’s not just the animals and birds that depend on the unique characteristics of the river delta landscape. For centuries, people have relied on it to support their livelihoods – and this is still true today for the 36,000 residents of the area. The fertile, productive delta land is perfect for agricultural uses from crop-growing to livestock rearing, while there are notable fisheries in the river itself – both farming and fishing support local subsistence as well as providing jobs and income for the region.

A fisherman in the Buna River. Photo: © MedWet/C.Amico

On top of this, every summer the Protected Landscape attracts a vast influx of tourists, which dwarfs the local population. Around 250,000 people visit the area each year, almost all of them in July and August, bringing in much-needed revenue for local businesses and communities.

 Money from tourism is vital to the region’s limited economy. Per capita income levels here are very low, and high unemployment levels are reflected in the fact that 12% of the population can only survive with economic aid or money sent from family abroad. But unless tourism is very carefully managed, it could prove disastrous for the Buna River delta – and the same is true for other economic activities.

Over the years, uncontrolled development for mass tourism has caused pollution and destroyed coastal habitats, causing short-term damage and calling into question the long-term attractiveness of the area as a destination. Meanwhile unsustainable agricultural and fishing practices have been jeopardizing the future productivity of this rich delta environment.

Pollution in the Buna River. Photo: © MedWet/C.Amico

And there’s one more thing: climate change, and the risks that come with it. As IUCN Project Officer Elizabeth Drury puts it,

“The Buna Delta is one of the most vulnerable areas to flooding in the whole of the Mediterranean when it comes to climate risk. The data we have shown that during a storm or a flood event, some of these areas could be more than 5 metres underwater.”

The good news, though, is that people are taking all these risks seriously and taking real action in response to the development challenges they face. Local communities have come together to develop the Buna Delta management plan, a holistic strategic vision for the area financed with grants made through the Action for Buna campaign as well as other organisations supporting long-term sustainability – and as nature so often offers the best solutions, projects have a strong focus on ecosystem and habitat restoration.

Action for Buna’s key aims are improved governance, land management and monitoring, along with closer community engagement. As well as hands-on work to restore and preserve the Buna River delta’s wetlands, the programme provides training and support to build capacity in local private and government sectors, scaling up the impact of its activities.

The grants which support the management plan are channelled to several areas. Some are focused on the development of sustainable tourism, working with local fishers to promote ecotourism fisheries as well as openings for ‘clean’ watersports. Beyond tourism, other grants finance incentive schemes backing local agricultural products and to make farming practices more sustainable. Clean energy (mostly from solar panels) and improved green infrastructure (enabling more efficient use of water for irrigation and domestic purposes alike) are also part of the initiative.

The final area of focus is on landscape restoration. Functional coastal dune systems offer the best kind of flood defences as sea levels rise, and they prevent coastline erosion and saltwater incursion too. Healthy forests of oak and poplar are key for biodiversity and climate alike, while a thriving freshwater ecosystem is like the blood flowing through the veins of the Buna River delta and its inhabitants. Restoration work is ongoing in many different parts of the area.

Early on, the project established a stakeholder committee to represent the diversity of all those who rely on the delta’s natural riches. By working together, the people of the Buna River delta have been collectively building their understanding of sustainability, and improving their socioeconomic conditions while doing so. Already, the future looks better than it did.