Let's defend the rivers of the Balkans, by Giovanni Vale

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In the Balkans they are expected to build 2,800 hydroelectric power plants, mostly small in size but with a devastating impact on the river environment. In defense of these waterways, a collective of activists and an annual Balkan Rivers Tour have arisen

25/10/2018  John Vale – Zagreb (for Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso – Transeuropa) * 


A month-long journey, paddling along Balkan rivers from Albania to Slovenia, in order to protect the future of waterways under attack. This is the “Balkan Rivers Tour”, which took place from 7 September to 8 October, in its third edition organized by a group of Slovenian activists and with the involvement of many associations and groups of citizens in various locations on the Balkan peninsula.

We started from the Vjosa valley in southern Albania and went up to Slovenia passing through Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia", says Katarina Mulec, one of the volunteers of the collective “Balkan River Defense”, at the origin of the initiative. After 36 days of travel, the Slovenian organizers summed up the experience with some nice key data: "5,025 km travelled, 15 actions organised, 1,315 eggs consumed, 2 managers of hydroelectric plants forced to leave their offices to meet the demonstrators, 422 eaten bureks…”.

Demonstration in Ljubljana (photo © Katja Jemec – courtesy of Balkan River Defence)

Rowing against power plants

What is it about? The threat hanging over the rivers of the Balkans (and beyond) is both very large and little known. The construction of approximately 2,800 hydroelectric power plants is planned in the region, the vast majority of which are small (often with a capacity of less than 1 MW), but still capable of having a devastating impact on almost all the waterways in the area, which today flow for 35 thousand km, sometimes without encountering human intervention. Dried up streams, diverted streams, flooded areas... the rural landscape of the Balkans risks changing significantly.

From this observation the Balkan Rivers Tour project was born. The creator, Rok Rozman, is an Olympic rowing champion, with a long love story behind him for the rivers of his country (Rozman recounted his background and his motivations in this TEDx Talk held in Ljubljana – English subtitles). Faced with the possibility of seeing all the rivers in his region cut off by dams or forced into concrete channels, Rok Rozman turned into an activist: "I want to demonstrate that protecting nature can really be Rock'n'Roll", he declared.

So the first tour started in 2016, with 33 days of kayaking through six countries and on around twenty different rivers and with 2 thousand people involved in the organized events. A year later, the program changes slightly: we only row on two rivers, but we do it from source to mouth. The duration of the trip remains almost unchanged, with a total of 30 days on the boat. “This year, ten of us left Ljubljana and along the way another 25–30 people joined to paddle with us!”, reports Katarina Mulec.

Kayaking on the Tara River (ME) – (photo © by Katja Jemec, courtesy of Balkan River Defence)

The summit of European rivers in Sarajevo

The initiative of young Slovenians, who have been descending the rivers of the Balkans for three years, might seem anecdotal, except that there are many other signs of growing interest in the situation of waterways in South-Eastern Europe. Last September 27, for example, the first European Rivers Summit was held in Sarajevo, a summit organized by various ecological organizations (including Riverwatch, Bankwatch, WWF, Wetlands and Euronatur) and focused precisely on the issue of rivers, dams and of hydroelectric power plants.

This is a common problem in many countries, not just in the Balkans. Participants from over 30 countries arrived in Sarajevo”, explains Ulrich Eichelmann, head of the Austrian association Riverwatch. “The fact is that in almost all European countries there are subsidies for renewable energy and within these, the hydroelectric lobby has managed to make space for itself, currently experiencing a real boom in power plants,” continues Eichelmann. Funded by citizens through electricity bills, thousands of hydroelectric projects are popping up across Europe.

In the Balkans, the situation is even more serious because civil society is generally weaker and corruption is higher", adds Eichelmann, who notes however that "in Albania, in Serbia, in Bosnia and Herzegovina", the population is "rebeling against the many hydroelectric power plant projects". “Stopping construction sites, however, requires a great and constant effort, while the only way to definitively interrupt this vicious circle would be to exclude hydroelectric power from subsidies for renewable energy, which should focus on wind and solar,” concludes the director of Riverwatch.

The Sava River segment of the Defense of the Balkans Rivers tour (photo by © Gary Wockner) – Save The Powder

The blue heart of Europe beats in the Balkans

On the site  (managed by Euronatur and Riverwatch together with other local partners), the map showing the approximately 2,800 hydroelectric power plants scheduled for construction in the coming years in the Balkans is visible. In Serbia there are 200 projects in protected areas alone (and 800 in total); in Albania it is one of the last wild rivers in Europe - the Vjosa - which is in danger; small Macedonia could soon be equipped with 150 dams... and the list is even longer, threatening areas where - according to Riverwatch - "the best European rivers" flow (since for the 80% they are still "in good or excellent conditions") .

Also financed in some cases by European multilateral banks (such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank, which together provided over 500 million euros), micro hydroelectric power plants are very profitable investments. “Thanks to subsidies, the profit generated rises from 3.5 euro cents per kWh produced to 6–7 cents, even 10 cents in some cases,” analyzes Ulrich Eichelmann. It is therefore not surprising that despite relatively small expenses ("even just 10 million euros for a small structure"), projects of this type are multiplying.

In Bosnia, even former NBA basketball player Mirza Teletović has jumped into the business. “Two lawsuits have been filed against him for the power plant he wants to build in Jablanica”, says Jelena Ivanić from the Center for the Environment (Friends of Earth network) in Banja Luka. But although the construction site is officially blocked pending the verdict, work has resumed (a few days ago a new demonstration attempted to block the builders). Another famous sit-in in Bosnia was born in Kruščica and before that in Fojnica, where – Ivanić specifies – “the local population managed to have the project cancelled”. Little by little, in fact, the inhabitants are organizing themselves. To the amazement of investors, despite the divisions in the country, one was also born Bosnian Coalition for the Protection of Rivers.

A group of courageous women from Kruščica, a village in Bosnia-Herzegovina, who blocked the construction of the hydroelectric power plant for 300 days. Their struggle is told in the documentary “Blue Heart”, produced by Patagonia, which supports the “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” campaign

The Undamaged, the movie

The colorful kayaks of the Balkan Rivers Tour stopped in each of these locations, where groups of citizens mobilized against bulldozers and diggers. A film was born from the meetings and protests organized together: "The Undamaged”, literally “intact”, but the word also contains the term “dam”. The documentary, approximately 45 minutes long, retraces Rok Rozman's initiative and the path followed two years ago during the first tour. “We started with the idea of making a short video of the trip, but then we found so many local stories that kayaking took a back seat,” says Matic Oblak, one of the film's main filmmakers.

In Albania, Slovenians meet Olsi Nika and his NGO Eco Albania, committed to stopping the hydroelectric tsunami wanted by Edi Rama: 550 new power plants, of which 130 have already been completed and around thirty under construction. In Serbia the journey also passes through Stara Planina, a natural park where 60 dams are planned. But today around 80 thousand people follow the groups dedicated to the protection of Serbian rivers on social networks and protests are organized regularly (the last one on September 2, according to Aleksandar Panić, one of the organizers). “If we let them take even water, there will be nothing left for our children,” says Dušica Jovanović, another activist.

Risultati immagini per the undamaged balcani

This year, the third edition of the kayak tour also aimed to showcase the local communities the film made thanks to their contribution. “Starting from this winter the film will be presented at various festivals, then in the spring it will go to the cinema and by the end of 2019 on television”, anticipates Matic Oblak. For those who want to know more, the appointment is on the website Balkan River Defense where a calendar will soon appear indicating the festivals in which the film will be screened. Next summer, a new kayak tour will be held and everyone, whether sporty or not, is invited to participate.

Cover photo: Vjosa River near Tepelena (Albania) –

* This article was published on October 25, 2018 on the website of theBalkans and Caucasus Observatory – Transeuropa



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