People often ask me why on earth I live in Croatia by choice, considering that so many Croatians move abroad. They expect me to mention the beautiful coast, the weather and the friendly people... But apart from these, the first two things that come to mind are the tasty vegetables and the clear, beautiful rivers.
After the initial quizzical look that follows, the vegetables are relatively easy to explain, but rivers? Uh?
For someone hailing from a part of England where our local river was dry for most of the year and most of the other rivers were an opaque dark green, many of the Balkan rivers are a revelation.
The riverbanks are full of lush green vegetation, beautiful blue-green damselflies flutter around, shoals of fish dart around, and... wow, the water is clear! I want to dip in that...
So whenever the weather is good and I have some free time, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than cycling along one of the beautiful Balkan rivers, stopping occasionally to plop in for a swim. And so it was this year.
Some friends and I spent a couple of weeks cycling around Bosnia and Herzegovina, starting near the River Una and curving round via Sarajevo to the Neretva Delta and ending up at the sea. The stunning variety of landscapes compensated for the numerous hills we had to climb.
There was one thing that somewhat marred my enjoyment though. For years I’ve had a tendency to recognise place names by whether a multilateral development bank has financed a project there, whether there is a coal power plant there or some other environmental problem. It comes with the territory of being a Bankwatch nerd.
But this year, having spent quite a chunk of the year looking into financing for hydropower plants across the Balkans, it reached extreme proportions.
Nearly everywhere we went, the place name or river name would ring a bell... because there’s a hydropower plant planned there.
Take the river Sana, in Bosnia and Herzegovina for example. It might not be as well known as the mighty blue Neretva or the majestic Drina, but it varies along its flow from rapid-flowing rafting territory, to wide shallow sections ideal for paddling around or having a picnic.
And indeed on sunny days the banks south of Prijedor are lined with local people enjoying themselves. Further up the Sana becomes smaller and less populated, and even more beautiful, first lined with trees, then entering a gorge.
"Hey, let's build a power plant here"
Bosnia and Herzergovina
This was not the first thought that crossed my mind while looking at the Sana, but for someone it obviously was. If you follow the river up far enough you will come to this...
The Slovene company Interenergo, part of Austria’s Kelag Group, is currently constructing a 4.9 MW hydropower plant near the Sana springs near Ribnik.
As well as making a huge mess of the landscape and drying out a stretch of the river by diverting it into a tunnel, this plant threatens one of the most important river sections for the endangered Huchen fish in Europe.
There is a supreme irony here, as Austria has spent millions of Euros restoring rivers with Huchen during the last fifteen years, yet now its companies are destroying similar habitats abroad.
The Medna Sana plant is just one of more than 180 plants planned in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Considering the country’s beauty and biodiversity, if even a fraction of these are built, the consequences will be severe.
The ill-fated Ulog plant on the beautiful upper Neretva provides a cautionary lesson on poorly sited and poorly planned plants, for example.
In April 2013 a construction permit was issued to the project company EFT, but then in early July 2013, within just four days of one another, two workers died in separate landslide incidents.
Since then, preparatory works have ground to a halt, and it looks like nature might just get its own back this time.
It’s not just Bosnia and Herzegovina - no, not by a long way. Other countries around the region have gone on hydro frenzies to an even greater degree.
Bulgaria was the frontrunner in this field, with small hydropower plants appearing all across the country in the late 2000s, many of them financed with public money by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Environmentalists have since been documenting the results of this hydro-rush, with dried up streams and stagnant water painting a murky picture of once lively rivers and streams.
What has happened in Bulgaria is a stark reminder that small hydropower plants are by no means necessarily less harmful than large ones.
Albania has taken hydro-fever to a new level, though.
From 2007-2013 when Sali Berisha was Prime Minister, the government awarded concessions for no less than 435 hydropower projects. We’ve managed to identify 81 which are now operating, as well as 36 under construction, but the remainder seem still to be in the planning stages for now.
Among the most controversial are those on the wild Vjosa river, where no less than 38 hydropower plants are planned to bluntly intrude on the river’s flow almost from its springs to the sea.
One of these is the 8 MW Lengarica hydropower plant on a Vjosa tributary, promoted by Austrian Enso Hydro GmbH, which is already under construction. The plant will change the water flow in the Lengarica Canyon, a natural monument located downstream of the plant, interfere with the Hotova Pine national park and impact the tourism which is a significant source of income for local people.
The fact that the Albanian authorities approved the plant inside a national park bypassing the national environmental laws has remained unchallenged by the public financiers. The International Finance Corporation, Development Bank of Austria and the Green for Growth Fund have supported the project with at least EUR 20 million in public loans.
The plants that have been built have caused so many problems that environmentalists have called for a three-year moratorium on constructing new plants, while the permit documentation and concessions are reviewed.
The issues go far beyond biodiversity. After construction started in October 2012 at the Bistrica 3 plant, near Sarande in the south of Albania, local people complained that the project polluted their water and damaged their agriculture.
In August 2014, the authorities ordered a halt to construction works due to environmental permit violations by the promoter company.
The story is similar in the case of the Ternove plant near Diber in Central Albania. The fact that a European public bank – the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) – is financing this 8.3 MW project does not seem to have helped to strike a balance between energy and water.
In 2014 people from the villages of Valikardhë, Zall, Sopot and Strikçan repeatedly protested against the construction of the plant after about 2,000 hectares of land were left without irrigation water due to diversion for use in the hydropower plant.
With poor planning, corruption and failure to listen to public opinion endemic throughout the region, cases like these are popping up time and time again.
Sometimes the stories end happily, like earlier this year when plans for small hydropower plants in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Una National Park were hastily withdrawn after public outcry, or in 2013 when the EBRD cancelled a loan for the Ombla hydropower plant in Croatia.
Also this year, the concession for two dams planned on the Vrbas river near Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina was finally cancelled, more than 10 years after the projects were de facto stopped by protests.
In other cases like Boskov Most in the Mavrovo National Park in Macedonia, the projects look like they are in their death throes but the companies that have spawned them – and the (public) banks that finance them – just can’t seem to give up on their wayward offspring, as if delaying and doing new studies is going to somehow turn these into environmentally and economically sane projects. It won’t. Just save everyone the time and money and stop now.
Biodiversity vs. climate?
It’s easy to fall back on the old ‘but we need energy’ arguments and accuse those concerned about hydropower of stopping the development of non-fossil forms of energy. But isn’t it those who are relentlessly forcing through destructive, unpopular, and often uneconomic projects that will do most to cause a backlash against renewable energy?
It seems to me that if you want to promote something, you should do it in a well-thought out way, that would attract people not repel them.
Damming and diverting the region’s most beautiful rivers and destroying water resources or places where people go to relax doesn’t seem like a good start to me.
Study | December 11, 2015
With a deadly combination of Europe’s last wild rivers, rampant corruption and inadequate nature protection, the potential for hydro developments in southeastern Europe creating damage is immense.
In order to address this issue, we need to know who is making it happen. Our research aims - to the extent possible given the secrecy around the financial sector - to find out who are the main actors involved in financing hydropower projects in the region, both overall and inside of protected areas.
Find out more at bankwatch.org
Save the Blue Heart of Europe
Save the Blue Heart of Europe is an international coalition and campaign fighting to save the unique rivers of the Balkans by preserving the most valuable streams and stretches with regard to ecology and biodiversity. They shall be preserved for the benefit of nature, biodiversity, and of the people for whom these rivers have a deep symbolic and cultural meaning, as well as for those coming from afar seeking to experience the last untouched rivers in Europe.
The coalition believes that the economic future of the Balkan countries can be more sustainably stimulated by conserving their natural treasures and keeping their potential for sustainable socio-economic development available for future generations.
Fine out more at balkanrivers.net