The outer edge of the Nartë lagoon in Vlorë, Albania.

The outer edge of the Nartë lagoon in Vlorë, Albania. Yuriy Brykaylo / Alamy Stock Photo


Jared Kushner Has Big Plans for Delta of Europe’s Last Wild River

Albania’s Vjosë River is known as Europe’s last wild river, and its pristine delta is a haven for migratory birds. As plans for luxury developments there — spearheaded by Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner — move ahead, conservationists are sounding the alarm.

It is the jewel of the Adriatic. Its shimmering waters feed a rare colony of Dalmatian pelicans, the world’s largest freshwater birds, sustain the endangered Albanian water frog, and host loggerhead turtles on its encircling dunes. The Nartë lagoon is at the heart of the extensive and largely unspoiled delta of Albania’s Vjosë River, which researchers consider Europe’s most intact large river delta.

But that accolade won’t save it. The Vjosë delta and its lagoon are under siege. They are set to become the victims of a series of massive coastal tourist developments, partly bankrolled by a company set up by Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. The hotels and luxury villas will accommodate up to a million visitors arriving annually at a new international airport currently being built on salt marshes around the lagoon.

Until the fall of the Iron Curtain that walled off communist Eastern Europe from the capitalist West, Albania was the 20th century equivalent of North Korea, a virtual prison state under the control of strongman Enver Hoxha. But today, its government wants to welcome the world and is bent on turning the country’s previously remote southern coastal region into what it calls an Albanian Riviera.

The delta “is one of the most vital sites for biodiversity, not only within Albania but across Europe,” says an environmentalist.

The Kushner development projects, which are set to be a key part of that, were revealed last month by The New York Times. The ecological damage they will likely cause has so far gone largely unremarked outside Albania. But that is likely to change, if campaigners have their way.

“Vjosë-Nartë is one of the most vital sites for biodiversity, not only within Albania but across Europe,” says Aleksandër Trajçe, executive director of the Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA), the country’s first environmental organization. “These developments are highly alarming, and we are strongly concerned about losing the last natural coastal areas in the Mediterranean,” says Annette Spangenberg, head of conservation at EuroNatur, an environmental NGO based in Germany.

Southern Albania is a rare European oasis for nature. The Vjosë River is often called Europe’s last undammed river outside Russia. It flows freely for 170 miles from the Pindus mountains in Greece, where it rises, and through canyons in remote Albanian highlands, before spreading unconstrained across a wide floodplain and emptying into the Adriatic through its 59,000-acre delta.

The Vjosë River delta, site of the planned development.

The Vjosë River delta, site of the planned development. Yale Environment 360

Its survival as an undammed river is largely thanks to international campaigners who have for the past decade successfully prevented the Albanian government from building large hydroelectric dams in its upper reaches. Last year, the Albania government conceded defeat on its hydro dam plans for the river and declared the newly created Vjosë Wild River National Park to be off-limits for development.

But euphoria at the decision has been short-lived, as the government’s environmental declarations have collided with its economic priorities.

It turns out the protection for the river only covers the stream itself. The delta remains excluded and ripe for construction, especially now that its limited protection is subject to veto by the prime minister. Meanwhile, the government has in recent weeks changed the law to allow it to bypass environmental protection to greenlight upmarket tourist developments in protected areas of the delta.

The ecological importance of the Vjosë delta for Europe is underlined in a soon-to-be-released study of 258 river deltas around the Mediterranean, seen exclusively by Yale Environment 360. It finds the delta to be one of only a handful of deltas around the sea that are anything close to pristine — and the largest of them. Ulrich Schwarz, a floodplain consultant based in Vienna who compiled the report for EuroNatur and RiverWatch, another European NGO, calls it of the “utmost importance for the Mediterranean.”

The Albanian parliament approved a measure that allows the prime minister to override existing protections for the delta.

At its heart is the 10,000-acre Nartë lagoon, a key breeding and feeding ground for southeast Europe’s most iconic water birds, including the Dalmatian pelican, whose wingspan rivals that of the great albatross, as well as flamingos and spoonbills.

But close to the lagoon, construction of the airport with its two-mile runway is nearing completion. It is scheduled to open for business next spring. PPNEA’s pelican conservation coordinator, Zydjon Vorpsi, says that the development it will unleash will “transform the area, resulting in complete urbanization of the delta.”

Even if the lagoon survives as a body of water, Vorpsi warns, its hydrology will be wrecked; the extensive dunes that have been built up at the delta’s outer edge will be at extreme risk; and the noise and lights from the airport will disorientate and scare away birds and turtles. It will be a wildlife wipeout.

One of the confirmed investors for the new tourist developments that the airport will trigger is Affinity Partners, a Miami-based private equity firm formed by Kushner in 2021. It reportedly has an investment pot of $3.1 billion, most of it from the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund, a government sovereign-wealth fund. Working with Kushner on facilitating the projects in Albania is Richard Grenell, who served as acting Director of National Intelligence in the Trump administration. Affinity’s local partner is Albanian billionaire Shefqet Kastrati, whose Kastrati Group is involved in everything from fuel trading to construction and luxury hotel management.

Jared Kushner on an official U.S. visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017. His Saudi-backed firm is a major investor in the Albanian developments.

Jared Kushner on an official U.S. visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017. His Saudi-backed firm is a major investor in the Albanian developments. Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images

Kushner’s plans reportedly focus on two areas around the delta. One is the currently uninhabited Sazan island, which once housed a complex of military bunkers. It is a short speedboat ride from the new airport. The second is the Zvërnec peninsula, a promontory connected by a wooden bridge to an island in the Nartë lagoon that houses the remains of a 13th century Byzantine monastery.

The peninsula has a pine forest with a large bat population, inviting beaches, and an existing settlement of a few hundred, mostly elderly, permanent residents, supplemented by a larger group of homeowners who spend their summers in the village or rent their houses to tourists. But Kushner reportedly has something much grander in mind, with plans for up to 10,000 hotel rooms and villas, according to Bloomberg News.

Both Sazan island and the Zvërnec peninsula are theoretically protected. Sazan is in the Karaburun-Sazan national marine park, and Zvërnec is inside the Pishë Poro-Nartë protected area.

But in February this year the Albanian parliament rushed through a change in the law on protected areas, known as Law 21/2024, that environmentalists say will permit Prime Minister Edi Rama to override existing protection laws to allow construction of five-star tourist resorts. “The president [former military chief Bajram Begaj] ratified the law just three days after the Kushner plans became public,” says Vorpsi. “We are in no doubt that the two are connected.”

While Western European nations are tearing down barriers to rewild rivers, those in the east are going in the opposite direction.

PPNEA and EuroNatur are among several conservation groups taking the government to court over the issue. They say the change conflicts with international conventions that the government has signed, including the Bern Convention on protecting Europe’s nature. Last year, the convention’s Standing Committee urged the government to halt airport construction, pending a proper environmental impact assessment.

Flowing rivers are among the most threatened ecosystems worldwide, and Europe’s rivers are more disrupted than any others. Very few are now free flowing, even for short stretches. A recent European Union-sponsored study concluded that there are at least 1.2 million dams and other barriers across its rivers, an average of more than one every mile, some 20 times the recorded density in the United States. “Europe has possibly the most fragmented rivers in the world,” says Carlos Garcia de Leaniz, professor of aquatic bioscience at Swansea University in Wales, who coordinated the project, known as AMBER, for Adaptive Management of Barriers in European Rivers project.

Two-thirds of the barriers are weirs, culverts, sluices, and fords less than 2 meters high. Though individually often only of minor importance, they can create local flood risks, pond up pollution, and are collectively a major reason for Europe’s loss of 93 percent of its migratory-fish populations in the past half century — far greater than the 28 percent decline in North America, says Garcia de Leaniz.

A rendering of the planned hotel development on the Nartë lagoon.

A rendering of the planned hotel development on the Nartë lagoon. Studio Genesis

Yet these small barriers are often unmapped and previously unknown even to river authorities. About a thousand were recorded for the first time in the survey, which included field visits to a thousand kilometers of rivers as well as satellite imagery. But Garcia de Leaniz says the picture remains “woefully incomplete,” with tens of thousands more yet to be identified. To fill the gaps, the project launched a smartphone app to encourage citizens across Europe to report additional river barriers in their localities.

Many of the barriers that disfigure Europe’s rivers and hobble its freshwater ecosystems are obsolete. Around 13 percent are “legacy structures, having little socio-economic value but causing potential ecological harm,” according to Piotr Parasiewicz, director of the Rushing Rivers Institute, a Massachusetts nonprofit, and a co-leader of the AMBER project. Their removal is the main element of a target under the E.U.’s Biodiversity Strategy to “reconnect” 25,000 kilometers of rivers by 2030, says its water policy officer Valentina Bastino.

Dam Removal Europe, a network of experts, claims that so far more than 1,100 barriers have been removed. Most are small, but in the past five years, France has removed two large dams on the Sélune River in Normandy, allowing the return of migrating salmon and eels. Denmark has also “freed” more than 200 miles of rivers.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has accused environmentalists of “raving about the destruction of an imaginary national park.”

But while Western European countries are tearing down barriers to rewild their rivers, those further east are often going in the opposite direction. Despite the supposed protection of the River Vjosë’s stream, the Albanian government has recently announced plans to divert the flow of one of its tributaries, the River Shushica, into an aqueduct that will supply new coastal resorts.

More widely, many countries want hydroelectric dams to provide low-carbon electricity. Environmental opposition to conventional large dams is pushing them towards installing large numbers of much smaller hydropower plants. Some 2,700 have been proposed across the Balkans, including more than 300 in Albania, according to the Vienna-based RiverWatch.

Garcia de Leaniz says this is a bad idea. Through their numerous minor interruptions to river flows, small dams cumulatively do more damage than large dams, while delivering less power, he says.

But while upstream barriers are a growing threat, arguably an even greater menace to the natural integrity of Europe’s rivers comes from the growing pressure to “develop” coastal deltas. This is a particular issue in the Mediterranean, which is rich in river deltas, because the sea’s small tidal range allows sediment brought to the coast by rivers to accumulate without being washed away.

Flamingos at the Nartë Lagoon.

Flamingos at the Nartë Lagoon. Gent Shkullaku / AFP via Getty Images

In the western Mediterranean, few of these extensive deltas are in anything like a natural state. Only around a quarter provide more than tiny amounts of habitats for wildlife, Schwarz concludes. They have either been drained for agriculture and urban development, or their rivers have been dammed, capturing the sediment that is necessary to maintain the deltas. Often both.

The Rhone in France has lost 83 percent of its sediment supply to dam-building. The Po in Italy has lost 71 percent and the Ebro in Spain 98 percent, Schwarz says. Most are suffering extensive wave erosion, as a result.

But further east, the situation has been better. Especially in southern Albania where, according to Schwarz’s analysis, the deltas of the Vjosë and neighbouring Semani and Shkumbin rivers are each among the four most pristine Mediterranean deltas covering more than 25,000 acres.

Those three deltas are critical for water birds resting and feeding on the Adriatic Flyway, a major migration route between Europe and Africa, says Vorpsi. So, the implications of their loss — and especially of the Vjosë delta, the largest — would be felt far beyond Albania. “This jewel is at risk of being lost forever,” warns global NGO Birdlife International.

Kushner’s company did not respond to requests for details of its plans, beyond what he has posted on social media, or to address concerns about their potential environmental impact. But the Albanian government remains determined on its course.

In an address to a political assembly last month, Prime Minister Rama blasted his environmental critics, accusing them of “raving about the destruction of an imaginary national park that has never been a protected area,” of “releasing thunderbolts of accusations and slanders about me,” and of “making Albania seem unfairly ridiculous in the eyes of the world.”

Whatever the critics might say, he lauded the claim of developers that “Albania is the new rising star of tourism in the Mediterranean.”