Tages-Anzeiger, Zürich Newspapper: Dams everywhere

Balkan countries are planning the construction of 3000 mostly small hydroelectric power plants. The dams would destroy Europe’s last intact wild rivers – and are largely useless for the region’s energy supply.

An article about the planned dams on Balkan rivers from the daily newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, Zürich, 2018-05-23

Carolin Wahnbaeck

Vjosa river

Vjosa river

When their stream was to be dammed, it was enough for the “brave women of Kruščica»”. They sat down on the bridge in their Bosnian village, hitched under and guarded the river – for 325 days, around the clock. Against whole hundreds of policemen, against their wild insults, against the investor, against the city administration and against the dam. Because with the power station their stream would disappear and with it the water that they need for their fields, for their cattle and their lives. It took more than ten months before politicians and the construction company finally gave in: For now, the stream remains as it is. The women from Kruščica are now known throughout Bosnia – and with them the endangerment of the rivers in the Balkans.

The small power plant of Kruščica is only one of about 3000 planned hydropower plants in the Balkans. The last wild rivers of Europe still flow in Bulgaria, Serbia or Albania – neither dammed nor straightened.

38 dams on a river

For example, the Vjosa: It winds 270 kilometers freely from the Greek Pindos Mountains through Albania to the Adriatic Sea. A river that constantly changes its course, removes sand and gravel banks and piles them up again elsewhere. It carries its sediments into the sea and protects the beaches from erosion. With eel and mullet walking up and down the river for 200 kilometers. With bird species such as Little Ringed Plover, Little Egret and Great White Egret living in floodplains and flood plains. And with people who need the river to live. But this last major wild river in Europe is under threat: 38 dams are planned for the Vjosa and its tributaries alone.

188 power plants are currently under construction in the Balkans, a further 2798 are planned, in addition to 1000 already existing plants. About half of the planned dams and diversion power plants are even located in nature reserves. “The blue heart of Europe beats in the Balkans. But a heart attack threatens this heart,” says Ulrich Eichelmann of the Riverwatch organization.

In the name of climate protection, hydropower is to supply “green electricity” for the Balkan states. But water power destroys the river ecosystems, whose water is dammed up into lakes, while the river bed below the dams dries up. Water’s getting scarcer and worse. The groundwater level downstream sinks, trees and bushes dry up faster in droughts.

The dams threaten species like the Balkan lynx. Freshwater fish such as huchen, also known as Danube salmon, lose their last important habitat. For a variety of freshwater mussels, snails and insects, their last refuges are disappearing. 30 endangered species could become extinct, 69 endemic – i.e. only native – fish species would be threatened.

“Hydropower is not even climate-friendly – on the contrary,” says Eichelmann. In fact, large dams and their reservoirs emit about 1.3 percent of global greenhouse gases per year, according to a study. Natural rivers and their ecosystems are CO2 sinks.

Nevertheless, it is clear that countries like Albania need more electricity. After all, the Balkan states have committed themselves to increasing the share of green energy to 20 percent by 2020. But there is no energy master plan behind the expansion of hydropower. The dams will not supply the electricity needed. 90 percent of the planned power plants are small, with a maximum output of 10, often even less than 1 megawatt. Today, three large dams in Albania supply around 98 percent of Albania’s hydroelectric power – and around 130 small plants supply the remaining 2 percent.

The reason for the hydroelectric boom is clear to Eichelmann: “The subsidies. Without subsidies, 90 percent of the plants would simply be unprofitable.” Only subsidies made the business profitable – for construction companies, banks and energy companies.

A new report by Bankwatch lists in detail which banks and companies are behind the dam boom. Financial institutions such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the World Bank are the driving forces. Since 2005, these banks have invested 727 million euros in 82 hydropower plants in the Balkans, 37 of them in protected areas. The EBRD is Bankwatch’s largest public investor and finances directly or indirectly at least 61 new projects – half of them in protected areas.

Commercial banks are also putting a lot of money into the dams: According to Bankwatch, they are involved in 158 new projects, one third of them in protected areas. The two largest investors: the Austrian Erste und Steiermärkische Bank and the Italian Unicredit. Deutsche Bank also finances hydroelectric power plants in the Balkans. This often contradicts one’s own ecological obligations: Unicredit, for example, has signed several water protection and dam construction guidelines and promises to stay out of nature reserves. In fact, the Bank finances six dams in such areas. “We do not comment on individual projects,” Unicredit writes upon request.

Among the energy companies, the Austrian company Kelag – with RWE as the largest shareholder – is one of the main investors: it operates, builds or plans around 18 power plants in the Balkans. Seven facilities are planned in the Bjeshkët e Nemuna National Park in Kosovo alone. But these are only “project ideas at a very early stage, nothing more,” says Kelag spokesman Josef Stocker. In protected areas “it is not even possible to obtain a licence for a power plant”. However, it remains unclear why Kelag plans hydroelectric power plants in the national park. Stocker emphasizes: “We always comply with the applicable laws and regulations”.

Concessions to minions

However, the applicable environmental protection laws are usually not implemented consistently enough. “Corruption is widespread,” says Eichelmann. Construction companies and politicians are often very well networked. This is the only way that so many plants can be built in the middle of protected areas. That concessions are given to minions and are often enough resold on the black market, while in most cases the local population is neither informed nor involved.

Nevertheless, there is hope for Europe’s last wild rivers. The EBRD and the EIB are revising their environmental and social standards this year and the EIB intends to draw up guidelines for hydropower financing. “This is a great opportunity to tighten the rules and exclude the financing of hydropower in sensitive areas,” says Pippa Gallop, one of the authors of the Bankwatch study. At European level, too, the realisation is slowly gaining ground that subsidies for hydropower are being reduced.

The outdoor company Patagonia is also fighting for this. For four years, the US company has been committed to protecting rivers and fighting against new and old dams. The company around founder Yvon Chouinard supports local activists and NGOs, made a film and started a petition. Anyone can use their signature to ask banks like the EBRD to shut off the dams.

Meanwhile, the environmentalists are taking further action: Riverwatch keeps suing against illegal projects. With success: The dam construction site on the Vjosa has been at a standstill for years. In addition, the NGOs are fighting for Europe’s first wild river national park on the Vjosa. The population should benefit from income from tourism. Another solution for the Balkans: Saving energy. Eichelmann says that heating systems and the lack of building insulation waste an enormous amount of energy. In addition, 30 to 40 percent of the energy was lost in the networks alone. And the future lies in wind and sun: Albania, for example, has over 300 sunny days a year. And so far only one small solar power plant.

The power plant of the Fierza reservoir produces about one third of Albania’s electricity needs. 98 percent of the electricity comes from the three large reservoirs.

For a variety of animal species, the last refugees are disappearing.

Facts and figures

Hydropower in the Balkans: 94% of the electricity in Albania is supplied by hydropower. In Montenegro the figure is 51 percent, in Serbia 28 percent. By comparison, hydropower accounts for 57 percent of electricity production in Switzerland and only 3 percent in Germany.

69 endemic fish species, i.e. species that only occur in the Balkans, would be threatened by the additional dams.

Albania has 300 sunny days every year – ideal conditions for solar energy as a supplement to hydropower. So far, however, there is only one solar power plant in Albania.