The pristine lakes, dense forests and rugged mountains of the Western Balkans, an area of Southeast Europe extending from Croatia to North Macedonia, may feel familiar. The region’s captivating landscapes have served as backdrops for stories like Game of Thrones and The Chronicles of Narnia.
The Western Balkans, with some of the last free-flowing rivers in Europe, has its own stories to tell. Accounts of rich biodiversity and species found nowhere else, like the mysterious olm, a blind salamander inhabiting subterranean caves of the Dinaric, or the extraordinary soft mouth trout swimming in the Adriatic rivers.
Freshwater ecosystems are some of the most threatened on Earth, and the rivers of the Western Balkans are no exception. The vitality of these waterways has declined in recent years from pollution and development pressures.
Rivers of Focus
Croatia: Korana, Mrežnica, Tounjčica, Zrmanja
Bosnia and Herzegovina: Vrbas, Neretva, Buna
Serbia: Veliki Rzav
Mrtvica, Morača, Bistrica
North Macedonia: Vardar
United for Rivers Initiative
In an effort to preserve the region's natural treasures, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and six local partners started a campaign to protect 13 rivers across five Western Balkans countries.
The goal of the United For Rivers initiative is to safeguard 400 kilometres of the world's last free-flowing rivers, establishing new protected areas that ensure the ecological, social and cultural values of freshwater ecosystems endure for generations to come.
“At the heart of our initiative is the conviction that engaging and empowering local communities in Southeast Europe is critical for effective and durable river protection,” says Dragana Mileusnić, TNC's Southeast Europe Programme Director.
By investing time and effort in scientific research and understanding the needs and opinions of local communities, United for Rivers aims to ensure early and transparent stakeholder engagement, while respecting the unique ecological, social and cultural characteristics of each river.
Early victories in the Western Balkans could serve as a model and pave the way to safeguard freshwater habitats around the world.
River Champions: Their Stories
Rivers have always connected people, cultures and countries. As these waterways lose their webs of life, their natural flows and the draw of their aesthetics, this connection can erode away.
But people from all walks of life are coming to their rivers' aid, hoping to turn the tide on a trend to devalue or even neglect these vital waters.
These people are eager to tell stories of ecological revival and spiritual renewal. Here are 5 of them:
Vardar River (North Macedonia)
Apart from its ecological importance, the Vardar River has also been a significant cultural and economic force in North Macedonia and Greece for centuries.
It has shaped the lives of local communities, serving as a transportation route for trade and commerce while the fertile lands of the Vardar Valley enabled agriculture.
Quote: Andon Krstevski
Veliki Rzav River (Serbia)
The Veliki Rzav River in Serbia is a biodiversity hotspot that is home to an impressive array of plant and animal species.
Recent studies have confirmed the existence of 132 species of benthic algae, 121 bird species, 44 mammalian species and 13 species of fish.
Quote: Tijana Veličković
Ćehotina River (Montenegro)
The Ćehotina River in Montenegro is well known to fish experts as one of the most important natural spawning grounds for salmonid fish species.
Although the Ćehotina has changed over the years, it remains a river teeming with brown trout and grayling, as well as the Danube salmon, the queen of the Ćehotina rapids.
Quote: Vaso Knežević
Neretva River (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
The Neretva River in Bosnia and Herzegovina has become a hub for recreational activities.
Every summer, the city of Mostar is the place to be for many of the world’s best professional divers who want to show off their skill and bravery by jumping off the Old Bridge in the city center.
Those interested in experiencing the river from a different perspective choose rafting and kayaking down its emerald-green waters, while the more adventurous dive underwater to discover its hidden world.
Quote: Sanja Mitric
Mrežnica River (Croatia)
The Mrežnica River in Croatia is truly a sight to behold. Throughout its entire course, the river cascades over numerous waterfalls and tufa barriers, some say more than a hundred!
Currently, the official process of designating two new protected areas along the Mrežnica is in its final stages.