To defend the Balkan rivers, it was first necessary to make people aware that they were in danger. An interview with Ulrich Eichelmann, founder of the NGO RiverWatch and one of the coordinators of the campaign Save the Blue Heart of Europe
What is special about the rivers of the Balkans?
It is soon said. They are intact and flow free, to an extent not found anywhere else in Europe. In relation to the overall length, they have very few dams, barriers, and channels. This is how they probably looked like in Western Europe a few centuries ago.
In the former Yugoslavia and Albania, they were not destroyed for lack of money – as it turns out, fortunately so. They perfectly meet the target set for fresh water by the European Union's Water Directive: a good ecological status for its water across the continent. Unfortunately, this is an impossible task.
But there are two other reasons that make them special. One is the incredible biodiversity. Just to talk about fish, there are 69 endemic species. It is the last refuge for fish such as Hucho hucho, the Danube Salmon.
But the third, fundamental reason is the close social relationship between rivers and the population. Many in the Balkans live with the rivers. They need them for drinking, for irrigation, for the animals. But for many, rivers are part of their identity. They are their "home".
I am German and live in Austria. Here, when people think of rivers, they think of catastrophes, of floods: otherwise, they don't make the news. We have a completely disturbed relationship. We are scared of rivers more than we love them.
A recent decision by the parliament of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina blocked the construction of the hydroelectric plants, as requested by environmentalists for years. Why right now?
It is a good question, but it is impossible to give a satisfactory answer.
First, Bosnia is an extremely complicated country, with its division into three entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republika Srpska, and the Brčko district. The moratorium was approved by the Federation. That it happened right now depends largely on the environmental struggles of the past few weeks. There have been roadblocks and protests, even during the lockdown. This caused a sensation in the media and among the people.
It would not have been possible, however, if there hadn't been a battle that lasted for years. In Bosnia, this is a heartfelt question. People believe that the problem lies all in corruption. The latest protests have come in a context in which this perception was already rooted.
And then, maybe, there was some coincidence. There were MPs who entered Parliament with this idea. I'm not sure anyone has a more complete picture.
Two, three weeks ago the parliament suddenly decided for a moratorium, giving itself three months to check all the concessions: to see what laws need to be changed, in order to have better legislation and tackle abuse.
Is it a final victory?
Actually, I'm still skeptical. Those who approved the moratorium are the same people who let the mini-hydroelectric race get to where we are now. It's not like devils turned into angels.
But it is true that there is now a certain momentum. According to our lawyers, however, three months to check all the concessions is not much. It is almost impossible, there is a huge amount of material to analyse.
In Republika Srpska, about ten days ago, the MPs presented another very strong bill, similar to the Federation's, with six months to check the concessions – a much more realistic interval. In the end, however, the proposal was not discussed in Parliament – a bad surprise. If the government and the opposition had agreed to change everything, why was the proposal withdrawn?
In a way I said ok, it was crazy, too good to be true. In fact, Republika Srpska is now the epicentre of the destruction of the rivers in the Balkans, and has been one step away from stopping all the works. Then, the Energy Minister must have told the MPs "we can't really do it, the hydroelectric sector is too profitable, the investors' books are in order, etc. etc.". But today I don't have a precise idea of the dynamics, maybe there will be other surprises.
There are elections in October...
Surely the elections played a role. But there was no specific need for a moratorium right now. They have done as they wanted for years, and the criticisms were always the same. But it's like asking why an avalanche falls. Maybe a deer walking somewhere caused a small noise... a small push and just at that moment it all comes down.
However it goes, it's good news. It is no small thing in this lockdown period, with multiplying news of environmental abuse. In Southeast Europe, Slovenia appears to have backed down on environmental protection...
In Slovenia, unlike other countries in the region, there are no new plants under construction. But the government has changed. The new Minister of the Environment, Vizjak... I have known him personally since he was director of the main national hydroelectric company. He is an absolute technocrat, and wants only one thing: building dams. Making him the Environment minister is like hiring a goat as a gardener.
They have adopted emergency legislation for Covid-19 which has cancelled all the basic rules we have in Europe to give civil society a voice. And it has made it easier for investors to move forward even when there are no permits yet or further valuations are expected.
In Slovenia, however, civil society has always been strong. And they are members of the European Union: I am sure that in the end it will be possible to legally oppose these decisions, if only at Community level.
The heart of the abuse favored by the emergency is Bosnia and Herzegovina, not Slovenia. After all, it is happening all over Europe. Illegal bird hunting has increased dramatically in Malta, sturgeon fishing in Bulgaria... and illegal logging in Romania.
And yet the Covid crisis has been perceived by many as a sort of revenge of nature...
People think that thanks to the lockdown "nature can breathe" – planes that no longer fly, transparent waters in Venice, and so on, but the opposite is true.
It is another example of how the common perception is wrong. Wherever there was exploitation of nature, the abuses have increased, because the control instruments have failed.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina many works have started, sometimes without permission. And the institutions that had to check that everything was in order said that they could not go to the construction site because of the lockdown. Investors destroyed forests to make access roads to construction sites and institutions did not control. The justification was "let's follow the government's advice, stay at home". It is actually called corruption.
Where did the main abuses occur in Bosnia and Herzegovina?
On June 1st they wanted to start works on two of the 15 plants planned on the Neretvica, a tributary of Neretva. But 250 people rushed to block the construction sites. Thanks to the moratorium, the river should now be safe. Now we need to focus on legal issues, find the legislative gaps. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, we are involved in 17 lawsuits.
Public opinion plays an important role in final decisions. The course of justice is delicate in these countries. In Austria, if the investor is at fault, perhaps lacking the necessary authorisations, the case is over. But not in Bosnia. The legal battle is a fundamental piece of our strategy.
In the Balkans there are problems that are perceived as much more urgent. What is the degree of awareness among the population about the protection of rivers?
There is awareness. I'm not saying everyone is aware of the problem, but many are. The physical action that has taken place in the last four weeks, in the midst of a pandemic, has involved many people. Unlike in other countries, people in the Balkans are more passionate and more determined. They go out into the street and block, occupy. They fight for their landscapes, let's put it this way. I doubt that in Austria, where I live, people would go that far.
Is there a "good" hydropower?
Hydroelectric has negative effects on various levels. There is no "good" hydroelectric. The important thing, however, is quantity. In Europe there are many dams, and few rivers left in their natural state: the only responsible choice is to defend them. It is like a patient who has to take a medicine: they take too much, they die. This is what we have in many parts of Europe: an overdose. Officially in Europe we have 23,000 plants, but there are actually many more, perhaps twice as many.
All rivers are fragmented, diverted, no longer carry sediment, the floodplains are filled with artificial reservoirs. On rivers, when you have an impact on a point, you can recognise its tracks throughout the course. But what matters is quantity.
If you look at the maps on the integrity of waterways in Europe, you will see that almost all areas are compromised. There are healthy rivers here and there, but a larger hydrographic network, which connects more intact rivers, only exists in the Balkans.
How is it possible that such small plants, involving minimal investment, are so difficult to stop?
The main reason is the subsidy system. And this has to do with global warming issues. When the problem was recognised, we told ourselves that we had to insist on the "new" renewables, which were not yet competitive on the market. But hydroelectric is not solar or wind: it is the oldest source of energy production. Even the Romans built mills. The hydroelectric lobby, however, is much stronger than that of other renewables, or at least it was 20 years ago.
They have managed to enter the subsidy system at all levels. In Brussels, first of all. Countries have integrated subsidy rules into their legal systems. Not only the member countries such as Austria or Slovenia, but also Bosnia and Herzegovina, or Albania.
Thanks to subsidies, an investor gets much more money per kilowatt hour, more than three times the market price. Paid by the consumer.
The women of Krušćica (who occupied a construction site for 500 days until the court declared them right), throughout the period in which they blocked the construction site, paid their opponent with their bills.
Yet there are environmental laws...
The truth is that, as long as you can make a lot of money by destroying nature, nature will be destroyed. They tell you that laws are strict, that you need environmental impact assessments, clauses on participation in the decision-making process, etc.. But in my 30 years of experience in hydropower it has never happened that these mechanisms blocked projects. Money, if it is enough, always finds its way.
It always goes on, perhaps with compensation measures, like here in Austria.
Furthermore, corruption is widespread in the Balkans. It's not the whole system, but there is always someone who knows someone who will somehow get you permission. It can come after the work has started, it doesn't matter.
Bosnia and Herzegovina and other Balkan countries rely mainly on coal. Can this make it more difficult to argue that the main problem is hydroelectric?
Put in these terms, this is a wrong question. We are not producing too little, we are consuming too much. Bosnia and Herzegovina exports electricity despite major losses on the electricity grid. Coal is horrible, it must disappear, but there are other renewables such as sun and wind that have not been considered.
Above all, no one would seriously argue that the mini hydroelectric can make a real contribution to the country's energy supply. Even in Brussels, by now, they know that the mini hydroelectric does more harm than good.
But your question has to do with an even more central issue. Is there a way not to kill everything on earth under the pretext of fighting global warming?
No light on the horizon?
The European Green Deal contains both measures against climate change and plans to restore biodiversity. Finally, these two pillars are put on the same plane.
If we talk about the environment, however, almost everyone would look to air, thinking in terms of CO2 equivalent. Global warming is systematically abused, used as a tool to destroy nature faster than ever.
It is difficult to realise the importance of rivers...
A large tree that is cut down has an immediate impact. With hydroelectric, it is different. Most of us have never even seen an intact river in our life and don't even know how it looks like. When you see an intact river like Tagliamento in Italy, you think "so much gravel! What is that?" (laughs).
Of course, it is easy to communicate that large dams are a disgrace, less so for small, decentralised plants. The idea that "small is good" always wins. We should show images of fish that die or become trapped in the impossibility of going up a river, but they do not exist. If people are not prepared, it is also our fault.
How did it all start?
It was about ten years ago. There have always been people aware that the Balkan rivers had an invaluable ecological value, but an overview was missing. In the beginning there were three or four of us. We started with the idea of doing something small. We could not go village by village to look for individual rivers, but at the same time we wanted to protect them across the region. We studied the hydromorphology of the peninsula.
The next step was to survey all the power plant projects that we could find. So, in 2013, we made the first map. It contained 1,500 existing or planned dams. It was this map, full of dots, that did the rest. Finally the problem had become visible. And it was a radically new approach for NGOs.
What do you mean?
NGOs usually focus on some rivers or some problems, such as Neretva. But in the Balkans there were so many cases. There was no overall vision.
Another determining factor was the interest by the Patagonia brand. When they saw the map, they couldn't believe what they saw. Even many supporters of hydroelectric had to recognise that it was too much. Since then, we have monitored the situation every two years, updating the map. We got more funding and we were able to support people on the field.
We have a few key areas: Vjosa in Albania, western Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia with the Mavrovo park, and the upper Sava river. We were able to take care of the people who live there and take care of their territory.
Instead of focusing on individual waterways, you adopted an international perspective...
The initiatives have grown and gradually transformed into a movement. Balkan River Defense activists, kayakers, even private companies have joined us. We have eleven lawyers on the team. We have hired another person since April, a woman who works only with artists. We try to bring them to the rivers, so that they can communicate their beauty to their public. More and more groups are coming.
It all started with a few very simple, but right ideas. So right that they have grown rapidly. And now we hope to expand the Blue Heart project across Europe, not only in the Balkans.
We have collected data across the continent, but what has been missing so far are NGOs and initiatives that are dedicated to rivers in an equally decisive and passionate way.
The Blue Heart campaign is coordinated by associations, such as yours and Euronatur, which deal with rivers full-time...
Sometimes there is a problem with larger NGOs. They deal with very different topics: forests, marine ecosystems, climate change, and so on. Maybe you would like to focus a campaign entirely on hydroelectric, but the section dedicated to climate change says you can't communicate it that way. The point is to be focused on a theme and at the same time to be flexible and wonder what more can be done, this is the point.
Don't just follow the projects. In a campaign like ours, you have to start from a plan, but then be able to adjust quickly. The moratorium in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, has brought about an unexpected change. In this situation you have to be quick, maybe move the funding to other activities. For example, we need lawyers who know the laws of the Federation well. We need to be dynamic.
A lot of work, made possible by the many NGOs and activists present throughout the region...
The cause of the rivers involves a large variety of people. From the typical NGOs that have been dealing with certain issues for years, to the many groups of activists, sometimes so determined that, if they deem it necessary, are not afraid to act even outside the rules. As did Eko Akcija, who blocked the plants in Bosnia in full Covid emergency.
What are the most urgent battles now?
The two crucial areas remain Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania. The decision on Vjosa is just around the corner.
The Vjosa in Albania, the longest natural river in Europe, was one of the first victories of river activists...
Victory in court only concerned the project of a single dam. But the government appealed and at the same time issued a concession for an even larger dam in Kalivaç. That is the dam on the Vjosa. If we stop it, we may be able to create a national park, the first in Europe based on an intact river. But if we lose, we lose the Vjosa.
How much do the travel restrictions due to the pandemic weigh?
We have a desperate need to be able to travel again. Technically we can get to Albania, but then we can't go back, we would be subjected to quarantine measures. And many have this problem, even many scientists. We all hope that it will soon be possible to return to move safely through the Balkan countries.
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