Hydropower ‘tsunami’ threatens some of Europe’s last wild rivers


The Eco-Masterplan for the rivers of the Balkans, a study covering 80,000 km, combining data relating to biodiversity, hydromorphology and the location of protected areas, revealed that 76% of the peninsula’s rivers are of “high ecological quality” and have been recommended as protected areas prohibited for hydroelectricity. 92% of proposed dam projects are located directly in these areas. Along the Upper Neretva River, seven dam projects are proposed. This is in addition to the larger Ulog hydroelectric plant already nearing completion downstream.

A breakthrough of sorts occurred in early July this year, when the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina banned the issuance of new permits for small hydropower projects up to 10 MWh due to their potentially negative environmental impact. The ban failed to revoke permits already issued for construction and, importantly, only applied to part of the country, which is divided into two governing entities: Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Herzegovina. This wild upper section of the Neretva and its hydropower projects are in the former, while the new restrictions apply to the latter – where despite the ruling, campaigners say, 39 rivers still remain under threat from projects already lit up.

These developments come just as the international community is becoming increasingly aware of what this region and its remaining free-flowing rivers offer, from rafting and angling, to trekking and cultural tourism. The by-product of this recognition is that attention is also focused on the threats facing the rivers.

Small hydro projects that previously may have gone unnoticed are now in the spotlight. Exposure and visibility are the cornerstones of the Save the Blue Heart campaign – not only on the world stage but, importantly, for locals themselves. For many, these sprouts of hope come too late.

“Many Bosnians didn’t know what they had here – for them it’s just a river,” says Ulrich Eichelmann, CEO of the Austrian NGO RiverWatch. “People who live next to rivers don’t necessarily understand the ecological connections… [but] they don’t need to know what’s in the river to know it’s worth keeping.

Eichellman adds that his ambition is “to make the rivers of the Balkans visible to the world – but also to make Balkan people more aware that they have something truly extraordinary.”

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