The Balkan peninsulais often quoted to be the home of the “last wild rivers of Europe.” Balkan rivers, large and small, are hotspots for biodiversity and are populated by rare animals – over 60 endemic fish species such as the Danube Salmon, and 40% of all endangered freshwater mussels and snails of Europe. Also, Balkan rivers feature highly attractive hydrogeological landmarks such as waterfalls and deep canyons. Some of the localities are protected by international conventions – including one of the biggest canyons in Europe, the Tara River Gorge, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The rivers are widely used by local populations as water sources. The complex ecosystems of large rivers and attractiveness of pristine mountain rivers made the Balkans a popular destination among hikers, fly fishermen, tourists, and outdoor sports lovers from the entire world.
The powerful flow of many rivers also made them attractive for hydropower development. Most of the Balkan countries already rely on the existing hydropower significantly – for example, the biggest Danube dam, the Iron Gate 1, is located on the border between Serbia and Romania. However, the new map of hydro power plant (HPP) projects in the Balkans is a step further – or too far.
In the first decade of the 2000s, to reach their renewable energy goals, the majority of Balkan countries adopted plans for the construction of new hydropower plants- almost 2,800 of them. Their size varies from large plants with huge dams to mini-hydropower plants.
Is Hydropower Truly Sustainable?
While hydropower, in general, is considered “green,” that is quite far from the truth. All hydropower plants, big and small, have a significant impact on the environment – both to the rivers’ ecosystems, and on the surrounding ecosystems. By changing one of the main characteristics of a river – its flow, hydropower influences water temperature, chemical balance, and other important factors, leading to biodiversity loss.
In terms of global climate, large hydropower plants emit both of the two most important greenhouse gasses -carbon dioxide and methane. The local climate also changes because the lakes that are created – changes in humidity levels and precipitation patterns are unavoidable. Often, the damage is irreversible and sensitive river species are lost, and so is the unique geomorphology of some sites (canyons, waterfalls). Although the water is “renewable,” the river ecosystem itself is not. Thus, most hydropower projects cannot be called truly sustainable.
In an ideal case, the damage can be minimized by careful planning. However, too often the only focus is on energy production, with no attention given to the environmental and social consequences of hydropower plants building and operation. For the most part, that is precisely what is happening in the Balkans. There are additional factors that contribute to the troublesome situation:
- The locations were picked mostly based on decades-old hydrological data, without an up-to-date follow-up investigation.
- The decisions were made without considering the region’s drop in available water predicted by climate models.
- Local communities were not included in the decision-making processes.
- In many countries, there is no strict control of HPP’s environmental impact.
- For HPPs with a capacity below 10 megawatts (MW), no Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is required – and 91% of planned HPPs fall into this category.
- The permits were given out even for protected areas – 37% (1,031) of HPPs are to be built in areas with high protection status.
Big Dams, Big Opposition
The “Balkan dam boom” plans vary from country to country. Bosnia and Albania face a number of medium-to-large hydropower projects, with large accumulations. Greece’s and Albania’s majestic Vjosa river (called Aoos in Greece) is the last free-flowing large river in Europe (excluding Russia). Along its course, Vjosa creates beautiful scenery – canyons, river islands, meanders, and attractive sediment deposits. It is all the more special because the entire catchment has remained free of dams – a pristine river ecosystem unique in Europe.
Now, eight dams are planned at Vjosa. The announcement was followed by strong opposition from the local communities, as well as from the national and international environmental and outdoor sports communities. The resistance has been amplified by bad experiences elsewhere in Albania, where local communities lost their water supplies due to hydropower development.
Bosnia has become the most prominent example of resistance to HPP development because of the group “Brave women of Kruščica.”, who defended the Sana river for more than 500 days. They have managed to physically stop the works on river Sana’s new HPPs “Kuščica 1” and “Kruščica 2”, despite pressures, threats and police violence. Although one other HPP on Sana went into operation in March 2018, now the government has accepted the initiatives for partial protection of Sana.
Large hydropower plants are state-funded, with loans provided by central banks such as the European Investment Bank (EIB) and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). The projects are often carried out by international consortia from Austria, Slovenia, Italy, Turkey, and China.
When it comes to small hydropower plants (SHPPs), the authorities issued a great majority of concessions to private investors. The projects are carried out locally, but their impact is more than local.
Small Hydro, Big Damage
Serbia – a country with a record number of planned projects (827)- has focused on small hydropower in sensitive ecosystems. Many of the projects plan to capture water in regions that are generally water-scarce, or in areas that enjoy national and international protection, causing a lot of controversies.
Most of Serbia’s future SHPPs belong to the so-called Run-of-The-River type (ROR)which diverge a certain amount of water from the rivers and conduct it to turbines to make a small amount of electric power (up to 1 MW). The size, productivity, and impact of ROR plants can vary drastically, depending on the design. Unfortunately, in the great majority of cases, investors opt for the easiest and cheapest types that will create the most electricity regardless of the environmental and social damage.
In the case of Serbia’s mini HPPs, almost all water is captured in the pipelines. The biological minimum of water that is required to remain free-flowing is not optimal for all the significant species. To make things worse, in reality, not even this small amount of water is allowed to escape the pipes, and mandatoryfish passagesare often illegally blocked by plant operators, As these small rivers are tributaries of larger rivers, the malpractice affects fish populations and biodiversity through the entire region.
Since these projects are small and local, they haven’t gained a lot of international attention. Still, the Serbian public got significantly upset about the developments in the protected areas of Balkan Mountains (Serbian: Stara Planina). Fifty-eight concessions have been issued for the natural park renowned for its scenic streams and waterfalls. The village Rakita near the Serbian-Bulgarian border has provided a tragic insight into what local communities in the Balkans face when opposed to hydro projects in their own backyards – threats, private security violence, lawsuits, damaged infrastructure and private property, police interventions, and major failures of local law and government officers to control the investor’s activities.
The Future of Balkan Dam Boom
The faith of the last wild rivers of Europe is still uncertain and varies from case to case. While some projects are getting postponed or canceled, others are proceeding forward despite being questionable.
Recently, Slovenia- a leader in the number or running plants -has decided to stop all further hydropower activities on its protected river Mura. In Serbia, the Ministry of environmental protection is officially against small hydropower and is pushing for a new law to ban power plant construction in protected areas (however, the bill had never come up for a vote in the state Parliament). The government of Montenegro promised to review the procedures for the construction of SHPPs and that it will approve no subsidies for the construction of new SHPPs.
Since a lot of projects depend on the loans from international banks, this spring, the EBRD decided to apply stricter criteria when choosing the projects it will support.
Yet, the situation remains complicated because of the local corruptive relationships between business, politics, and law. The fact that that “green energy” is subsidized by Balkan governments is seen as a lucrative business opportunity for many well-connected people. Excluding destructive private hydro projects from national renewable energy programs would, therefore, be the single most effective way to limit SHPP development and save smaller rivers.
Since bigger dam projects are essentially an international affair, further international pressure on governments, companies, and banks could hopefully help to find a genuinely sustainable practice for utilizing hydropower in the Balkans while still saving Europe’s “blue heart.”
Schwarz, U. 2015. Hydropower Projects on the Balkan Rivers – Update. Fluvius, Riverwatch & Euronatur.
Schwarz, U. 2017. Hydropower Projects on the Balkan Rivers – Data Update. Fluvius, Riverwatch & Euronatur.
Balkan hydropower projects soar by 300% putting wildlife at risk, research shows. Guardian. 27 Nov 2017
Green dams ‘hit’ West Balkans biodiversity, locals’ water supply. Euronews. 05 Jan 2018
The environmental battle to save the Blue Heart of Europe. Telegraph UK. 20 April 2018
A Balkan Dam Boom Imperils Europe’s Wildest Rivers, Yale 360. 8 May 2018
There is no life without water, and small hydropower plants would extinguish it on Stara Planina. Balkan Green Energy News. 25 April 2019
Sana Will Live! Initiatives To Protect River Accepted. Riverwatch. 15 May 2019
Montenegro to scrutinize small hydropower procedures, not to approve fresh subsidies. Balkan Green Energy News. 28 May 2019
EBRD tightens standards in response to Balkan hydropower boom, ESIASEE, 29 May 2019
Websites & Media
Balkan Dam Boom – Saving The Blue Heart of Europe”. France 24. 28 Sept 2018
“Blue Heart: The Fight for Europe’s Last Wild Rivers” – a documentary
Hydropower in the Balkans – News: