Construction of Dams Poses Increasing Threat to Balkan Rivers
The construction of dams is increasingly endangering rivers in the western part of the Balkans, which are extremely well-preserved in terms of structure and biodiversity and must be protected, said participants of a March 20 presentation of research done by a group of NGOs on the condition of Balkan rivers.
According to the research, the majority of rivers in the region, based on EU classification, are in the class of preserved or slightly changed river structures and are home to 151 endangered species of freshwater mollusks and 69 endemic kinds of fish.
The Balkans, however, is facing the threat of a “dam tsunami,” the presentation participants said, recommending to the countries of the region, prior to undertaking the construction of new dams, to draw up a master plan so as to observe environmental along with energy needs and to better plan development. They pointed out that in the EU rivers had to be “restored to good condition” by 2027, adding that it would be a shame for the Balkans to repeat the mistakes made in the Union several decades ago and then fix them later.
“We want to bring attention to this enormous wealth – the Balkan rivers,” said the CEO of German non-governmental organization EuroNatur, Gabriel Schwaderer, at the press conference in Belgrade.
Schwaderer said the research conducted by EuroNatur and the international NGO RiverWatch has shown that the western Balkan area has extremely well-preserved rivers and river biodiversity, but that they are increasingly being jeopardized by the construction of dams within energy projects.
The research encompassed the hydromorphological condition of the rivers, i.e. the preservation of river structure of about 35,000 kilometers of rivers in the western part of the Balkans, including the Sava River, existing and planned hydropower plants and the preservation of biodiversity – freshwater fish and mollusk species, he added.
Schwaderer emphasized that, according to the EU classification used in the research, the majority of rivers in that part of the Balkans fall into the first three of the total five classes, meaning that their natural state is either wholly preserved or slightly to moderately changed.
“As much as 30% of rivers are in Class 1, i.e. naturally preserved, while 50% are in Classes 2 and 3 (slightly and moderately changed),” he said, adding that it is difficult to find such well-preserved rivers in Germany.
He went on to say that “this is truly extraordinary” and that it was the reason why Euronatur and RiverWatch chose to name the area “the Blue Heart of Europe” and launch a campaign for conserving Balkan rivers, dubbed Save the Blue Heart of Europe.
Schwaderer said that 151 endangered species of freshwater mollusks in the world and 40% of such species in Europe live in the rivers of that part of the Balkans. The rivers are also home to 69 endemic freshwater fish species, or 28% of the species in Europe, of which 39 are endangered species in the world.
The head of RiverWatch, Ulrich Eichelmann, said that “the Balkans is facing a dam tsunami,” and added that there are 573 more medium and large hydropower projects planned in the western Balkans.
“That is being camouflaged by the need for the development of green energy, but it is not green because it disrupts the environment,” he warned.
Important Environmental Standards
Eichelmann said that a “master plan” has to be made before the building of dams is undertaken, in order to observe environmental alongside energy needs and to enable systematic planning.
He also recalled that EU candidate countries are expected to follow EU standards and values and stressed that the EU very strongly supports the making of such plans, not only in the Balkans because, as he put it, the problem of rivers has not be fully solved anywhere.
According to European regulations, by 2027 rivers in the EU must be in good condition, he said, adding that major funds are being invested in that endeavor. He added that it would be a shame for the Balkans to repeat the mistakes made in the EU several decades ago and then fix them later.
Schwaderer and Eichelmann also said that the countries of the region should study energy alternatives, i.e. should better view other potentials such as solar energy.
Experiences in the Region
At the event, the cases of three endangered river areas in the western Balkans were presented – the Mavrovo National Park in Macedonia, the Vjosa River in Albania and the Sava River.
President of the Croatian Society for Bird and Nature Protection Tibor Mikuska said that the problem on the Sava are also plans for better navigation, which, apart from dams, also envisage the making of deeper riverbeds and the fortification of the banks, aimed at enabling better sailing conditions.
In this, he said, the wrong logic of “first build a highway and then develop traffic” is being utilized. That, among other things, would include turning the meander in the Obed Swamp into a canal, he added.
The president of the Macedonian Ecological Society, Ljupco Melovski, said the Macedonian government remained deaf to the calls for conserving the Mavrovo National Park due to plans for the construction of several hydropower plants, which is why an international campaign has been initiated.
Eichelmann pointed out that the river Vjosa in Albania is practically completely untouched, i.e. the last wild river of that size in Europe, that there are plans for building a dam, but that they are luckily at a standstill for the time being.
Eichelmann also said that the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign is only at its beginning and that its initiators plan to establish contact with the competent authorities over the next three years, as well as to develop a network for the conservation of Balkan rivers.
The campaign organizers said that the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign website (www.balkanrivers.net) was launched on March 20.