In Media

Balkan dam boom threatens Europe’s last wild waterways

By Arthur Neslen/ The Guardian

Environmental concerns have pushed one flagship dam project to the brink of cancellation but a ‘gold rush on the rivers’ of south-east Europe puts these unique ecosystems and their wildlife, including the critically endangered Balkan lynx, in jeopardy

More is known about rivers in the Amazon than Europe’s last wild waterways in the Balkans. But these unique ecosystems in south-east Europe could soon be gone, along with endangered species such as the balkan lynx, if plans for over 2,000 dams go ahead, conservationists warn.

1. HPP on Langarica_ Roland Tasho

Dam construction site on the Langarica, a tributary to the Vjosa, in Fir of Hotova national park. © R. Tasho

Western financial institutions have ploughed hundreds of millions of dollars into building dams in the region, arguing that hydropower is a green energy source that offers poor countries a way out of energy insecurity.

The Guardian has learned that the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is on the verge of cancelling one €65m (£48m) showcase project in Macedonia’s Mavrovo national park, after sustained environmental criticism centred on the potential extinction of the Balkan lynx.

But other projects are still in the pipeline, even if much of the energy they produce is destined for export.

On past trends, deforestation and soil erosion will follow, along with irrevocable changes to the course and character of untamed rivers, a quarter of which lie in pristine national parks and protected areas, according to new analysis by RiverWatch and Euronatur.

“What we have here in the Balkans at the moment is a gold rush on the rivers,” says Ulrich Eichelmann, the director of RiverWatch, an Austria-based NGO. “I sometimes think the western countries that are financially supporting this degradation process have no idea what they are destroying. There is nothing in Europe remotely like this river system.”

From the mountains of Greece where it is known as the Aoös, the Vjosa flows for 270km to the Adriatic Sea, reaching a girth of 2.3km at its widest, its course and shape changing with the seasons and rainfalls.

“Scientifically we know more about some rivers in the Amazon than about the Vjosa,” Professor Fritz Schiemer of the University of Vienna told the Guardian. “We have very little knowledge about the biodiversity of the river ecosystem, and its ecological processes like sediment transport.”

But eight sites are being sized up for dam development along the Vjosa by foreign companies. The new Albanian government is privately resisting their approaches.

Edi Rama, Albania’s prime minister, told the Guardian that in his first six months in office, “I didn’t pass one day at work without someone calling or emailing me from Albania, Europe, or America, with this line: ‘We are interested in a hydropower plant development’.”

“Damian [Gjiknuri, the country’s energy minister] was overwhelmed. He said ‘What is this? Everyone wants to build a hydropower plant in our country. It looks as if we will repeat the great harm done by building illegal houses with hydropower plants everywhere and in the end we’ll have no water for irrigation’.”

Last year, foreign investment in extraction and privatisations across Albania’s hydropower sector made upalmost 10% of the country’s GDP.

Across the Balkans, RiverWatch says it has evidence of 435 dams planned in Albania, 400 in Macedonia and Bulgaria each, 700 in Serbia, more than 100 in Bosnia and Hungary apiece, 70 in Montenegro and more than 50 in Slovenia.

You can read the full article published at “The Guardian” here