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Balkan Rivers: Act Now, Stop Dam Tsunami!

The Balkans rivers are luckily still in good condition. Approximately 80% (30% in pristine and 50% in good or moderately modified state) of 35,000 river kilometers between Slovenia and Albania are in good or acceptable hydromorphological condition, according to EuroNatur and Riverwatch research. 

But, how long? I’m afraid we have very little time because almost 3,000 hydropower plants are planned to be built in the following years on the Balkans rivers, as an excuse of renewable, green form of energy generation. Not even national parks and other types of protected areas aren’t spared.
Which means no river will remain intact or unspoiled!

Rivers and people

“People on the Balkans rely and depend on rivers, they live together with rivers.” Ulrich Eichelmann, Riverwatch

A river is so much more then, just water that flows into the sea or ocean. The first civilizations and all great cultures have lived along the rivers. They are part of our history and folklore. For ages and ages, rivers are in tales and myths referred to as ‘mothers’, givers of life and fertility. They have religious significance for many nations. In polytheistic religions, rivers are usually related to the female divine.

Rivers connect us with ourselves, other people and nature. We enjoy in the relaxing murmur of water while it touches every stone and meanders through valleys and forests. We take our kids and dogs for long walks or go for a bike drive or jogging along the river bank. Rivers are an escape from all stress that modern life brings.

As they offer numerous recreational opportunities, rivers help us in the sustainable socio-economic development of the Balkan region. Every year, we have more and more foreign tourists coming to this region to experience stunning nature, and to discover rich cultural and historical heritage. They are literally blown away by beauty and pristine of wild mountains and rivers.

Only we can protect our rivers!

Even though we are aware that our rivers are our biggest treasure, we fail to see how human activities have a negative impact on rivers. Why?! Lack of knowledge and interest, passivity and corruption. It’s always easier not to think about problems and leave to someone else to deal with them. Also, we don’t mind giving our natural wealth for exploitation by rich individuals so they can get even richer until they totally destroy all rivers, forests, and mountains.

When it comes to hydropower plants projects, there are those people who are not well informed about the effects of thousands of dams that are planned to be built in the future in the Balkan countries. Then, those who believe that we need new hydropower plants in order to gain prosperity in the countries. Finally, the most important and the loudest and bravest are fighters for rivers. People who are aware of the power and importance of the rivers. With passion and strength, they act to change minds, strengthen laws and protect rivers!

But, also there are people that are afraid to raise their voice against hydropower plants, as they are threatened that if they protest they and members of their family will lose jobs. All these small hydropower plants are being planned in small settlements. The small communities where you know everyone and corruption is very present. That’s why citizens of whole countries need to stick together! 

What is the Impact of Hydropower Plants on Nature and Communities?

The Balkan rivers are extraordinarily rich in biological diversity. They are the hotspot for European endangered flora and fauna.

The latest study done by Euronatur and Riverwatch underlines that 28% of all endangered European freshwater fish and 40 % of mollusks (mussels and snails) species live in the Balkan rivers.

The Balkan rivers, and especially Sava catchment, our last home for the Huchen fish, also known as Danube salmon. This is a rare species because a majority of the population in Germany and Austria is lost. The research shows its habitat has been destroyed as a result of water pollution, gravel extraction and construction of hydropower plants.

Ulrich Eichelmann, the director of the “Riverwatch” NGO, during his presentation at the First European Rivers Summit held in Sarajevo, stated that the Balkan countries are global fish hotspot but under the huge threat to be lost by dam tsunami. “By building all planned dams, a large number of species, like the Danube Salmon and Prespa trout, could become extinct”, he added.

Impact of hydropower plants on the endemic species

  •  Dams are interrupting river’s natural flow. Fish and many other river species stop to reproduce because they need free-flowing and oxygen-rich rivers for feeding and reproduction.
  • Dams are blocking passage of river species.
  • Some species, like trout, live only on a few kilometers of river. If a dam is built on that part of a river then their habitat is completely destroyed,

Impact of hydrpower plants on climate and people

  • Hydropower plants contribute to climate change to the same extent as the total global air traffic, because the equal quantity (4%) of greenhouse emission is generated in reservoirs (primarily methane).
  • The freshwater for household consumption or farming is limited
  • The quality of drinking water declines
  • Many people from rural areas have been displaced as a result of a dam construction
  • Natural flood retention areas are reduced or lost, which means the risk of downstream floods is bigger. Flood waves are bigger and faster.

Our rivers are held in captivity. They are trapped behind dams and in pipelines. Their riverbeds are very often completely dry. So, what are we living for future generations?

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Crni Vir Waterfall near Konjic
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Danube River in Belgrade

Who is behind hydropower plant projects in the Balkans?

Today hydropower plants project are the safest investments. The price is precisely known and there is absolutely no risk. That is the reason why so many private investors are massively going for this type of business. These projects are supported by EU- based international banks, companies and energy groups.

Multilateral development banks such as the EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development), EIB (European Investment Bank) and World Bank Group are leaders in financing hydropower projects. Through the commercial banks, they invest in numerous small hydropower projects.

The problem is that many of approved projects do not comply with international conventions or EU legislation. Usually, reports about the impact of hydropower plants on the environment and protected species are based on incomplete, inaccurate or outdated data, or don’t even exists.
The worrying fact is that it seems there is a trend in construction of large numbers of small-scale hydropower plants in strictly protected areas (national parks, nature reserves, Nature 2000 sites). What does their status protected than even means when we have massive interventions inside them?

Igor Vejnović and Pippa Gallop, from Bankwatch Network, presented the facts from their research published in March 2018 about the financed hydropower projects in Southeast Europe at the First European Rivers Summit. According to this research multilateral development banks have supported 82 hydropower plants with €727 million. Although it sounds impossible, 37 of all 82 projects are in protected areas.

From the commercial banks, Austria’s Erste Bank and Italy’s Unicredit Group are most active in the support of small-scale hydropower projects. These banks have approved loans for the construction of 158 hydropower plants, of which 55 are in protected areas, as stated in the research.

In the Balkans, many citizens are not even aware that through the bill for electricity every month we pay a fee for renewable sources of energy (including hydropower plants). That means that private investors are getting subventions from the government paid by all us citizens.

Examples of the Hydropower Plant Projects in the Balkans

The ‘golden age’ of construction of the largest number of today’s hydropower plants in the Balkan region was during the time of the Socialist federal republic of Yugoslavia. Back then we could say it was for the development of the whole country. Today, almost 3.000 hydropower plants that are in the planning phase are only for the benefit of individuals, and also without consulting affected communities and without proper environmental impact assessments.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, that has around 250 rivers, the plan is to construct approximately 300 hydropower plants. So far around 60 of them have been built.

For more than a year ago women from Kruščica settlement started the fight to protect river Kruščica to be dammed. They suffered beatings from police officers, arrests and criminal charges, but the brave women of Kruščica didn’t give up the fight for the river. After a long and expensive trial, the women of Kruščica have won the battle!

Kruščica river is for decades a source of drinkable water not only for this settlement but also for a wider area. The locals want to keep this beautiful river and its environment pristine and wild as it is now. They think the money should be invested in the development of eco-tourism instead of the hydropower plant.

Besides the fight for Kruščica, currently ongoing is the fight of residents of villages along Doljanka river against the construction of two small-scale hydropower plants. The famous Bosnian basketball player Mirza Teletović is the proud owner of these two projects. Mirza thinks there will be no or very small impact on the environment, and that in this way he is helping the development of Jablanica region through which this pristine mountain river flows; one of many tributaries of Neretva river.

How hydropower plants actually impact on river and river species we can see on example of Kraljuščica, the tributary of Neretva river. Water from 8,5 kilometers long river is diverted into pipes of two hydropower plants on almost all its length. Against the regulation, not even a drop of water is returned into a riverbed. The riverbed is completely dry.

Serbia

The latest research about the hydropower development in the Balkans from 2017, says that around 800 hydropower plants, mostly of small capacity, are planned to be built in Serbia. This is terrifying! According to the research, this is a country with the biggest number of planned hydropower plants in Southeast Europe.

It sounds impossible, but the government of Serbia has put Rakitska river under mortgage so that the investor would get a loan to build a small hydropower plant on the Stara Planina Mountain.

The group of young people in Serbia are using social media to raise awareness about the negative consequences of small hydropower plants and organize citizens to protests for the protection of rivers in the Stara Planina Nature Park.

On the European Rivers Summit held in Sarajevo few activists from the Facebook group “Odbranimo reke Stare planine” talked about their fight against the plans of the government of Serbia to build 58 small-scale hydropower plants in the largest nature park in Serbia.
“We became the biggest ecological movement in Serbia with 70.00 members,” said Nensila Radojković, one of the members of “Odbranimo reke Stare Planine” FB group. In September they have organized protests in Pirot town and 4, 000 people from all over Serbia came to be part of the fight for rivers.

Montenegro

Currently, Montenegro has 13 operating hydropower plants on 7 rivers. The research states that 80 new small hydropower plants are planned to be constructed.

Approvals for hydropower concession in the Balkan countries are the result of political corruption and greed of individuals and not social need. The best evidence of that is a case when Prime Minister of Montenegro approved concession of building small-scale hydropower plant for his son. A nice gift for a son!

Vuk Iković, from KOD organization in Montenegro, during his presentation on the European Rivers Summit, talked about the devastation of small rivers in his country and possible solutions. How individuals with money and political power can do everything that they want shows the example of a local businessman who has built a dam on Jashka river to make a reservoir so he can irrigate his sports playground. Luckily, there was the reaction of KOD organization on this case so it was reported to the inspection and the dam was removed after 2 months.

The possible ways to fight against the destruction of rivers, Vuk sees in the institutional fight (reports of inspections and court proceedings), cooperation with other green movements and animating people to preserve rivers.

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Tara River in Montenegro, part of Durmitor National Park
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Piva River in Montenegro

How to Protect Rivers from Dam Tsunami?

“Our treasure are rivers, but also people who are defending our rivers.” Nataša Crnković, Centar za životnu sredinu (CZZS)

“Together we can save rivers”  Ulrich Eichelmann, Riverwatch

All of us can and need to act against the destruction of rivers in our country. The big changes start from small actions. We need to be united so we can together protect rivers for future generations. Rivers are the natural and common good. And we need to keep them like that!

How?

Some of the ways in which we can protect rivers are:

  • Push banks to lunch revision of their social and environmental policies
  •  Media propaganda
    All written and online media need to transmit information to citizens about the impact of hydropower plants on nature and people.
  • Pressure on government to protect rivers situated in strictly protected areas (no-go areas)
  • Protests of citizens against hydropower plants in their communities are definitely ESSENTIAL! In the Balkans that is only way to win in the fight for rivers. Quite often hydropower concessions are approved because of political needs, not because of social needs.
  • Debates, lectures, campaigns, and actions
  • More projects and researches about the impact of existing small-scale hydropower plants to prove they destroy rivers and environment.
  • Demand adequately consultation with affected communities as is it required by law!

The Bankwatch Network has a firm standpoint that public financial institutions need to re-examine support they are giving to hydropower plant projects in the Balkans. They need to withdraw funds for all projects that are planned to be constructed in strictly protected areas and for projects that don’t have complete environmental impact assessments of the environment.

According to “Eco-Masterplan for Balkan Rivers”, the latest study of Riverwatch and EuroNatur, out of 80,523 kilometers of river network from Slovenia to Greece 76% (61,033 km) are no-go zones for hydropower plants.

These zones have high ecological quality (hydromorphology, protected areas, key fish species, significant wetland systems, freshwater mussels, caddisflies) and therefore we cannot allow 2,497 projected hydropower plants to be built.

No need for new Hydropower! We Need Switch in Energy Policy!

Many of these hydropower plants that are currently operating do not work efficiently. Therefore, do we really need new small-scale hydropower plants that generate little energy but with a high loss on nature?

First of all, every country needs to have an energy concept to determine how much energy is needed and from which sources to get the energy (energy saving, sun, wind, gas, hydropower). Then we will see that actually there is no need for new hydropower. Potential of other sources of energy, such as wind and solar, are up to twice as high as current electricity demands in the Balkans and exceeds the potential from hydropower by five times, shows the study “Eco-Masterplan for Balkan Rivers”.

Most importantly, the study also shows that the Balkan countries cannot reach the EU renewable targets even if we built all planned hydropower plants.

We cannot build hydropower only because some politician, famous basketball player or other rich individual wants that. We need to learn from examples in other countries in Europe where the majority of rivers (60% rivers in EU) are extensively modified, don’t have good ecological status and suffer from a dramatic loss in biodiversity.

Let’s keep our rivers intact and pristine and work on the development of the Balkan countries through eco-tourism. In this way, we will keep our biodiversity safe and at the same time we will boost sustainable socio-economic development of this region. That means young people will stay in their countries and have a lot of opportunities for employment.

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