Sustainable biomass and forest management in the Drin basin, and cross-sectoral implications

A Phase II Nexus Assessment in the Drin basin is prepared in the framework of the SEE Nexus Project, funded by ADA and implemented by GWP-Med in partnership with the UNECE. In the context of this Assessment, an analysis has been prepared aiming at improving the understanding of inter-sectoral dynamics and implications of sustainable biomass and forest management and to inform coordination of policies and management practices, towards maximizing cross-sectoral benefits.

In parallel, a 2-days Capacity Building Workshop was organized in the frame of the SEE Nexus Project, on 16 & 17 December 2020[1]. Practitioners and decision makers from the Drin Riparians discussed latest developments, best practices and key interlinkages between sustainable forest management and integrated water resources management in addressing environmental and social challenges in the region.

The following article captures key points from the Analysis and the proceedings of the Workshop.


The Balkan Peninsula is famous for its very diverse mountain and forest areas, from alpine types of forests to boreal and Mediterranean coppice forests, shared among many countries. In the Drin basin in particular, forest and shrubs/open areas provide 1/3 of land cover, with almost half a million hectares (547,590 ha) covered with hedgerows, solitaire trees and small woodlots, mainly located in rural areas and along agricultural land. Forests provide a number of ecosystem services directly affecting the water-land-energy-ecosystems sectors as well as societies and economies throughout the basin: they clear the air and filter water, provide a “safety net” from floods and erosion as well as energy and wood products but also recreational services available to all.   

In the Drin basin, forests tend to be overexploited and degraded largely due to illegal, unrecorded, or poorly managed logging, which brings significant economic losses and environmental damage. This trend appears to be decreasing in Albania but increasing in Montenegro and Kosovo*[2]. Further key forest-related challenges in the basin are that official data about total forested areas are often lacking, while also forest products such as biomass are unsustainably produced and used.


Forest and land in the Drin basin

In the Drin Basin the most important source for biomass are forests. From these, 2.7 million m3/year wood biomass is harvested annually of which 80% is fuelwood and 12% processed biomass. Additionally, about 0.17 million tonnes/year biomassis harvested from agricultural land. The total stock[3] of wood in the forests in the basin is 82 million m3 with an annual growth of 2.1 million m3/year. There are also trees and woodlots outside forests contributing to biomass. These comprise of an area of 490,000 ha with an annual growth of about 0.1 million m3/year. This gives a total annual wood biomass growth of 2.2 million m3/year within the Drin Basin. With a negative balance of 0.5 million m3/year, wood biomass harvest is directly contributing to forest exploitation and degradation.   

Forest and Energy

Biomass is the most important energy source for renewable energy in the region. Forest products such as fuelwood, pellets, woodchips residues, roundwood and sawn and processed wood are used for energy purposes. Biomass (fuelwood) is especially used for space heating making biomass one of the main sources for fulfilling the energy demand within the Drin basin. The vast majority of all fuelwood is produced for internal markets with only approximately 1% of the total annual fuelwood harvest exported (processed biomass forms the larger part of the exported biomass).

Overall, the Drin Riparians produce less energy than they need, and the gap is filled with imports. There is an increasing effort in the region and the EU to increase the share of renewable energy and it is estimated that the demand for processed biomass for energy production will further increase in the future.

Forests and Water

Overexploitation of forests leading to land degradation has a direct negative impact on irrigation, hydropower and other water uses. Erosion and floods lead to damages of infrastructure, like irrigation systems, and increases sediment loads in hydropower reservoirs, complicating operations, increasing costs and reducing lifespan of infrastructure, such as hydropower dams. It also leads to insecure water availability (peak run-off, reduced infiltration and sustained water provision). In North Macedonia yearly soil losses – at country level - are 17.1 million m3, and over 2 million m3 in Montenegro. In Albania, the yearly rate of soil loss is estimated at 10.9-15.1 t/ha.

Forests and Climate

The current share of wood biomass used for energy (fuel wood and processed biomass) is very high in the riparian countries, up to 93% of the total annual wood harvest.  From the perspective of CO2 balance, the use of biomass for energy helps reducing emissions by replacing the use of fossil fuels. However, the harvest of biomass is also reducing the amount of carbon sequestrated in the wood and comes with a net release of CO2 through emissions when it is converted in energy through the process of burning.

Sustainable forest management

Sustainable forest management has a positive impact on soil and water conservation and can reduce flood risks and sediment transport, while also maintaining water quality and availability. Understanding these relationships is crucial for an overall sustainable transboundary river basin management. Close cooperation between the water and forest sector at national, regional and transboundary level, is necessary to tackle the challenges that forest management is facing today in the region.

Moreover, in order to further invest in and develop the biomass sector, it is important to ensure sustainable forest and land management. Based on the current data available per country, the harvest is either just on the edge of a sustainable balance or more likely, unsustainable.


A list of recommendations that take into account the interlinkages between forest and the water-land-ecosystem-energy sectors, highlights ways for the promotion of sustainable management of forests and their products within the Drin basin. These are focused on institutional changes that can be applied by the relevant Ministries of Environment and/or Forestry in order to put in place a regulative and legislative framework. The latter will ensure and monitor the sustainable use of natural resources, embedding river basin management planning and implementation in government structures at national and regional level for natural resource management but also water and ecosystems management while also establishing certification schemes (FSC or PEFC) for wood related products.

Another set of recommendations refers to raising awareness and providing scientific information such as trainings on sustainable forest management practices to all stakeholders including forest managers but also users such as farmers and ensuring the provision of scientific data by forestry experts on documents namely the Drin Basin SAP. Furthermore, there is a need to provide users, forest managers, industries and all related stakeholders with a set of tools that will ensure sustainable management of natural resources, use of sustainable harvested wood products by households at affordable prices and establish a Payment for Ecosystem Services within the river basin that will ensure that for example downstream water users pay for improved forest management or reforestation upstream.  

With support through the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA III) becoming soon available for 2021-2027 from the EU,  priorities and operational rules at national level shall be established  by the Drin Riparians to support sustainable use of natural resources and biomass (in line with chapter 11 of the EU acquis on agriculture and rural development, that requres adequate administrative capacity of the agricultural administrations, in particular in the area of formulation, analysis, implementation, support payment and control of agricultural policy.

In practical terms, measures could be designed to support

  1. Forest restoration and Sustainable Forest Management practices
  2. Sustainable wood harvest practices for small forest holders,
  3. SMEs to expand production of processed biomass products (pellets, woodchips, briquettes) for local consumers and related heating and/or combined heat and power systems,
  4. Investments by consumers for a switch from firewood to processed biomass products.

Within the same chapter, of the EU acquis on agriculture and rural development, Riparians could set up market mechanisms including price reporting and quota management while also including a gender perspective to address specific needs and opportunities. Identify options for establishing cooperation with development and commercial banks for the provision of micro-credit options/soft loans for households, businesses and public organizations to shift into alternative heating fuels (e.g. pellets, briquettes) as market-based measures to reduce illegal forest exploitation listed in the Drin Basin SAP. Small and Medium-Sized Enterprise development support is recommended within the biomass value chain to promote the further development and use of these renewable energy sources. Support for biomass production without however competing with agricultural crops nor endangering forest conservation.

Finally, cooperation on a regional level on issues such as biomass markets, renewable energy transition as well as wood and agro-products markets and sustainable management of natural resources should be properly integrated into national policies and implemented on a regional level among the Drin River countries. Clear interlinkages existing between the different sectors (natural resources, water, energy, food) and their link to climate change need to be translated, defined and agreed among relevant sectors/stakeholders at regional, national and local level to concrete actions in order to enable an environment for safeguarding the ecosystem services through the implementation of sustainable forest (natural) resource management.

The full Analysis on sustainable biomass and forest management in the Drin basin is available here.

Its recommendations are available as a stand-alone document here.

More information on the 2-days Capacity Building Workshop on Forest Management and water regulation, is available here.

photos © Dusko Miljanic

[1] CNVP (Connecting Natural Values & People Foundation) prepared the Analysis and implemented the Workshop

[2] This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence

[3] Total stock is defined as standing volume wood biomass in forests of stem volume up to 7cm diameter