Stories in Europe

United For Rivers: A Coalition for Europe’s Last Wild Rivers

Durable protection for 13 rivers across 5 countries takes local connections. In the Western Balkans, river champions come from all walks of life.

Blue river water cascades and froths over a natural wall of rock.
Nerevta and Buna rivers The bunski kanali formation, where the Neretva River and the Buna River meet in Bosnia and Herzegovina. © Ciril Jazbec

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.

A large arched stone bridge and various old stone buildings surround the Nerevta River.
Mostar's old bridge The city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mostar's iconic Old Bridge crosses the Neretva river. © Ciril Jazbec
× A large arched stone bridge and various old stone buildings surround the Nerevta River.
Aerial of a river full of oxbow curves brushing up against hilly terrain and farmland.
Meanders of the Cehotina An aerial view of the meanders of Cehotina river near Mataruge in Montenegro. © Ciril Jazbec
× Aerial of a river full of oxbow curves brushing up against hilly terrain and farmland.

Rivers of Focus

 Korana, Mrežnica, Tounjčica, Zrmanja

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Vrbas, Neretva, Buna

Serbia: Veliki Rzav

Montenegro: Ćehotina,
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.

Protecting Europe's Last Wild Rivers (3:31) They come from many different backgrounds, but they share an important connection. These are some of the people fighting to protect the rivers of the Western Balkans.

Coalition Partners

“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.

Stay in the Loop

Get our timely takes on some of the biggest challenges facing people and the planet.

Sign Up for Global Insights

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)

Andon Krstevski (1:22) Andon Krstevski, a winemaker from the region describes his personal connections to the river, as well as the reasons why the river enables the production of world-famous wines.

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.

Veliki Rzav River (Serbia)

Tijana Velickovic (1:43) Tijana Velickovic, a scientist from the University of Kragujevac, takes us on a journey of discovery, sharing with us her fascination with the Veliki Rzav River and its importance for European biodiversity.

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.

Ćehotina River (Montenegro)

Vaso Knezevic (1:35) Vaso Knezevic, a local fisher and activist, talks about his deep connection to the Ćehotina River.

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.

Neretva River (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Sanja Mitric (1:30) Sanja Mitric, a diver from Mostar, is dedicated to preserving the river for future generations and passing on her values to her daughter.

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.

Mrežnica River (Croatia)

Asim Ugljen (1:29) Asim Ugljen, an actor from Croatia, spends all his free time on the water, passing on his love of the river to his children.

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.

Rushing water foams white as it roars over a series of rapids and falls.
Krupa River rapids The 4-mile Krupa River in Croatia boasts 19 cascades and is a popular destination for hikers and rafters. © Ciril Jazbec