The fight for Europe’s last wild rivers 


 Aerial view of the hydropower plant under construction on the Sana river, in North-west Bosnia

Controversial plans have been proposed to build thousands of dams in the Balkans. Campaigners fear they will destroy protected areas and national parkland. ALESSIO PERRONE reports on the issue and on the NGOs fighting to save the 'blue heart of Europe'

These rivers are European natural heritage. In Western Europe, we have already exploited most of our rivers

Plans to build 2,800 hydropower plants in the Balkans over the coming few years have now been dubbed a ‘dam tsunami’. This building frenzy will trample on every country - from Slovenia to Macedonia.

It does not spare protected areas: some 37 percent of the dams are planned in areas with high protection status – including 118 in national parks, according to the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign, run by a wide coalition of NGOs.

Macedonia faces 400 dam projects, including 20 in the Mavrovo National Park. But it was hard to see so many coming. Alekandra Bujaroska, an environmental lawyer for Front 21/42 in Macedonia, told The Ecologist: “Plans were announced one by one, project by project. 

Pristine rivers

“That way, you can’t see the big picture. Then, as soon as you know it, the whole park is gone.”  She calls it "salami slicing".

We should care: the Balkans is home to Europe’s last pristine rivers – a hotspot of biodiversity and natural beauty.

Theresa Schiller, from the German NGO EuroNatur, said: “These rivers are European natural heritage. In Western Europe, we have already exploited most of our rivers.”

Some spots are so remote and untouched that “words can’t describe it; it’s magical,” says Aleksandra of the Mavrovo National Park in Macedonia. But if all 2,796 plants are completed, hardly any river will be left untouched.

An overview of all the dams planned in the region. Via Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign -  Mapbox, OpenStreetMap

Subsidised by governments

There is a combination of reasons why so many dams are being planned in the region. Western Europe is already a saturated market. The pristine Balkan rivers have huge potential for the industry. Some countries lack reliable data to conduct Environmental Impact Assessment (EIAs) properly. And some governments have failed to invite public participation.

But the single most important reason might be hydropower’s aura of being ‘green’ energy, making it easier to attract investment.

EU green energy targets create an incentive to invest in hydropower for countries seeking to join the EU, such as Albania, Macedonia and Serbia, although other forms of energy might be cleaner. 

And the ‘green energy’ aura also makes the funding easier. “Because it’s labelled as green energy, hydroelectric power is heavily subsidised by governments,” says Ulrich Eichelmann of RiverWatch.

Financial institutions such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the European Investment Bank (EIB), and the World Bank Group have provided funding in at least 82 projects, according to a campaign study.

These rivers are European natural heritage. In Western Europe, we have already exploited most of our rivers

Globally extinct

More core funding comes from private institutions, including Austria’s Erste & Steiermaerkische Bank and Italy’s Unicredit Group.

But the label ‘green’ hides more than it reveals. A 2016 study by Washington State University showed that when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, hydropower is not all that green.

It found the world’s hydroelectric dams were responsible for as much methane – which warms the planet by 86 times as much as CO2, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – as Canada.

And hydropower’s impact goes beyond emissions: “Hydropower development is endangering 10 percent of all river fish species in Europe,” says Prof Steven Weiss of the University of Graz, author of a paper on hydropower’s impact on biodiversity. “Thus, hydropower constitutes the biggest threat to our continent’s fish fauna.”

Some 113 endangered fish species find their habitat in the rivers between Slovenia and Greece – more than in any other region in Europe, and 11 fish species risk going globally extinct, with another 38 driven closer to the brink of extinction.

Withdraw funding

If fighting one dam is tough, fighting 2,800 across different countries is a daunting task. Dozens of local and international NGOs have united behind Save the Blue Heart of Europe, and the campaign has taken different forms.

Activists have tried to get the projects cancelled through lawsuits, pressure on financial institutions and work on the ground with local communities.

In Bosnia, the women of Kruščica have been obstructing the bridge that leads to a construction site for over 220 days. 

In other cases, the paperwork has done the job. In Macedonia, the Boskov Most plant – one of the two biggest projects in the Mavrovo National Park, home to the critically endangered Balkan lynx (about 50 live today) – was cancelled.

This happened after a lawsuit filed by Front 21/42 and its allies convinced the EBRD to withdraw funding to the project, teaching campaigners that pressure at the source of the money can be the most impactful strategy.

Spread awareness

The other bigger project in the Mavrovo National Park, Lukovo Pole, was discontinued after the World Bank pulled out. 

But the scale of the task is enormous. For every project halted, hundreds have been given the green light – over 1,000 dams are already operating.

Sometimes, a company who has been given the concession to build a dam will sue the government using Investor State Dispute Settlement tribunals.

Other times, campaigners lament having to fight the same issue over and over, as projects that they managed to block often come back through the backdoor.

This highlights the need for the public to stay informed, and for campaigners to spread awareness on the issues. In May 2018, they hope to release an ‘Eco-Masterplan’ of the region that will feature no-go zones for hydropower, and will demand that financial institutions endorse it.

Still alive

It also teaches campaigners victories must be savoured. It happened to Aleksandra and the campaign groups in Macedonia.

The Macedonian Ecological Society discovered Balkan lynx cubs were born in the Mavrovo National Park, and sent campaigners a video. 

“Watching them, you forgot everything,” Aleksandra remembers. It gave meaning to the years of fighting and frustration. “There was reproduction in the park. The park was still alive.”

This Author

Alessio Perrone is a freelance journalist.

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