Protectors Gain Influence as 2,700 Hydro Dams Threaten Pristine Balkan River System
Thousands of miles of the largely pristine Balkan Peninsula river system are under threat from a wild-west rush to build nearly 2,700 hydroelectric dams, as avid local officials and international investors seek to take advantage of EU climate protection strategies, writes Yale Envrionment360.
The projects are being planned for waterways throughout the Balkans, a region that has only recently been catalogued by researchers as one of extraordinary biodiversity and wildness. While intact ecosystems are vanishingly rare in Europe, notes e360, the peninsula is home to many rare and endangered species, including the Danube salmon and the Balkan lynx, as well as more than 40% of the continent’s endangered freshwater mollusk species.
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“This tsunami of dams will kill off some of the very last unspoiled, wild rivers in all of Europe,” said Ulrich Eichelmann, CEO of the Vienna-based NGO Riverwatch.
And the motive for this hydro frenzy—which is putting even national parks and protected areas at risk—isn’t green energy, but “pure greed”, says Eichelmann, referring “to the corruption and kickbacks often associated with government public works projects in the Balkans,” writes e360.
The plan to dam thousands of miles of rivers like the Sava, which runs through Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia and connects eight million people, is the mother of all public works projects that depend on government subsidies, “usually in the form of long-term, fixed prices for electricity generation,” says e360. And many parties are anxious to cash in.
“The state subsidies are the root of the problem,” Eichelmann said. “They make it very profitable for investors, both small and large, and even those with no record of energy investment, to invest in hydropower.”
But opposition is growing through the increasingly powerful Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign. Launched in 2014 by Riverwatch and the German NGO EuroNatur, and supported by Patagonia, the American outdoor apparel company, Save the Blue Heart is partnering with local grassroots organizations throughout the Balkans, raising public awareness about the extraordinary biodiversity of the region. The group has engaged in acts of civil disobedience, launched local court cases, and sometimes won them. The campaigns have made enough of a mark that the EU, “which had originally supported hydropower projects in the name of zero-carbon energy, is now urging governments in southeastern Europe to back out of them,” writes e360.
Blue Heart campaigners are also going after international entities “that continue to bankroll hydropower projects, despite the growing opposition,” including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which is itself underwritten by 64 national governments, including the United States.
“The largest renewable energy investor in the region,” writes e360, the EBRD “is currently investing €240 million in 51 hydropower plants in the western Balkans.”
Dariusz Prasek, the bank’s director of environmental and sustainability operations, maintained that “hydroelectric is a very important element in reducing CO2 from energy-intensive [and currently coal-dependent] industries in the region,” but acknowledged, “we need better monitoring and scrutiny of our investments.”
This year, “the EBRD will revise its energy investment criteria and take the Blue Heart campaign’s critique into consideration,” he told e360.
Stronger oversight and a more measured approach to implementing hydro are what the Blue Heart campaigners are asking for, explains Berlin-based writer Paul Hockenos. “Opponents say they do not object to all hydroelectric projects in the Balkans, but argue that far fewer should be built and only on the region’s less pristine rivers.”
They also point out that the peninsula, “with its Mediterranean climes and prodigious mountains, is ideal for other renewable energies, in particular solar and wind power,” Hockenos adds. Luka Tomic of Green Action, an environmental group based in Zagreb, said Croatia could be a net exporter of solar power—a far better outcome, say the environmentalists, than allowing a devastating juggernaut of out-of-control hydro generation, “much of which, they argue, is slated for export to Western Europe, anyway.”