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Environmentalists Say New Airport Threatens Albanian Lagoons 

FILE - Flamingos are seen at the Vjosa-Narte Protected area in Vlora, Albania, Jan. 28, 2023.
FILE - Flamingos are seen at the Vjosa-Narte Protected area in Vlora, Albania, Jan. 28, 2023.

A new, multimillion-euro international airport near Albania's coastal city of Vlora will mean hundreds of jobs for area residents. But environmentalists warn it could cause irreparable damage to the fragile ecosystems of protected lagoons that host flamingos, pelicans and millions of other migratory birds.

Albania's new, 104 million-euro ($125 million) international airport — the country's third — is currently being constructed at the Narta lagoon some 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of the city of Vlora. Set to start operations in 2025, the airport will boast a 3.2-kilometer (2-mile) runway and is expected to handle up to 2 million passengers a year.

That's good news for Adriatik Sela, a resident of Akerni village. The unemployed man hopes that “if there is business here, I could sell a cigarette package, or a coffee, or work as a guard.” He and others among the village's 1,000-strong population see the airport as an opportunity for a better life.

Heavy earth-moving vehicles and workers from Swiss company Mabco Constructions are currently busy building the runway as well as a road linking the airport to a nearby highway.

But Aleksander Trajce from the Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania, (PPNEA) says the airport poses a grave threat to the Narta lagoon and the Karavasta lagoon farther north and environmentalists have launched a court battle to stop its construction.

Millions of migratory birds use the lagoons as a rest stop as part of the Adriatic flyway, a route the birds use to travel from central and northern Europe to Africa. Up to 3,000 flamingos and pelicans visit the lagoons each year.

“Building such infrastructure right in the middle of this route would mean incredible damage to the bird populations for which this region is famous and on which it flourishes,” Trajce said.

Niko Dumani, from the non-governmental group Natural Environment Preservation and Protection Vlora, accuses the government of changing a pre-approved plan delineating a protected zone to incorporate a part of the lagoon into the airport's construction plans.

“It is strange how development policies change from promoting tourism to promoting other industries, like air transport, exploiting a habitat which is so important for tourism, like the lagoon,” he said.

Annette Spangenberg, from the German-based conservation group EuroNatur, said the Narta lagoon is part of an ecological network of conservation areas aiming at the long-term survival of bird species and their habitats.

“If you build the airport within this area, it’s going to harm the integrity of your river ecosystem. It is like cutting off the leg of the Vjosa River,” she said.

The Ministry of Tourism and Environment says it has consulted with locals and with experts. The new airport will generate at least 1,500 jobs.

The ministry told the Associated Press in an email that the site was selected “as the most favorable alternative" for the airport because a military airstrip had started to be built there in the 1920s.

But a European Union progress report on Albania last year noted that work on the airport started in December 2021 “in contradiction with national laws and international biodiversity protection conventions that have already been ratified.”

Environmentalists also fear birds could threaten flight safety.

In its most recent meeting in December last year, the Standing Committee to the Bern Convention called on the Albanian government to “suspend the construction of the airport due to its apparent lack of adherence to national and international laws.”

The ministry said “a series of protective steps will be applied.”

The residents of Akerni are unconcerned. Sela wants the airport to start operating as quickly as possible “to help all people in southern Albania take flights from here and, for sure, that will bring good luck to our lives.”