Save the Blue Heart of Europe

Over past decades, Europe’s rivers have been choked off, strangled and diverted in the name of renewable energy. The price has been dear, but now we have a chance to save some of the continent’s last remaining wild rivers.

Rainwater and snowmelt trickle in rills off a high plateau in the Pindus Mountains of north-west Greece. The water gathers momentum, tumbling over granite and limestone, carving its course through remote areas very few people have likely ever been. Clear-water tributaries join the flow, and the rushing river vivaciously channels through towering canyons, ancient woodlands, and a mosaic of habitats flourishing with life. Within its waters, fish thrive; amphibians and reptiles bask on the banks in the Balkan sun, and the invigorating riverine air is abuzz with aquatic insects; from the riparian trees, birdsong choruses, and overhead raptors soar. Soon the river spills onto alluvial plains, its channels snaking across the gravel riverbed like painterly brush strokes, meandering into wetlands, home to myriad bird species. The river passes small settlements of old stone and bucolic charm, quenching fertile lands worked by rural dwellers in much the same way they have for centuries. Upon a mountainous backdrop, the waters slow and calm until finally they pour out into the Adriatic Sea. This is the Vjosa River, which, in its ever-changing character, cuts 270 kilometres across the Balkans Peninsula from Greece to Albania. Remarkably, the Vjosa is considered the last large wild river in Europe.

The Balkans region, spanning countries and cultures between Slovenia and Greece, is home to many of Europe’s last free-flowing rivers. Dubbed “The Blue Heart of Europe”, nowhere else across the continent is it any longer possible to find such elaborate networks of wild rivers supporting such vibrant and abundant wildlife. Devastatingly, though, this bastion of European nature, including the revered Vjosa River, is earmarked for the same fate as the rivers of Central Europe. A bid for hydropower plans to strip the rivers of their vitality, disrupting watercourses established over aeons, and turning living rivers into contrived and controlled channels. An almost incomprehensible 3,000 hydropower projects are being planned, or are in the process of being built, across the Balkans region, in addition to the more than 1,000 that already exist there today. On the Vjosa alone, the Albanian government plans to build 38 hydropower schemes, and throughout Albania there are proposals to install over 500 dams and diversions. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, there are a whopping 300 new hydropower projects in the works on only 244 rivers. From country to country throughout the Balkans, it’s a similar story. Not one river in the region isn’t threatened by the “gold rush” for hydropower.

The Ecology

But isn’t hydropower clean and green energy? Far from it – please read “The Dam Truth” break out box to learn more. Ecologically, hydropower is a travesty, ravaging local environments and posing a grave threat to the health of riverine biota. Worldwide, it is believed that hydropower schemes have contributed to an estimated 81 percent of population decline in freshwater wildlife since 1970, with some species pushed to extinction.

In the Balkans, according to hydromorphology assessments, 80 percent of 35,000 kilometres of the region’s rivers are healthy and in good condition, of which an astounding 30 percent are considered to be in pristine condition. This incredible feat is without comparison throughout the rest of Europe; but almost ironically, through the Water Framework Directive, EU countries are striving to obtain a similar hydromorphology on European rivers into the future, clawing their way back to health after decades of degradation, in part caused by the installation of hydropower schemes.

Thanks to its unspoilt condition, the region boasts a biodiversity hotspot and is one of the most valuable sites on the continent. Balkan rivers host “69 endemic fish species, and over 40% of all endangered freshwater mussels and snails of Europe can be found in these freshwater systems,” according to a coalition of NGOs who have launched the campaign, Save the Blue Heart of Europe. Scientifically speaking though, much of the Balkans is still fairly unexplored due to limited access and the restrictive reign of communism in the twentieth century. New and endemic species are still being discovered, and there’s a high risk that undiscovered species may be lost if the hydropower schemes go ahead. In April 2017, 25 scientists from four countries surveyed the area of the projected hydropower scheme at Poçem on the Vjosa, and in just one week they found 300 animal species, including two new to science: a fish and a stonefly. The scientists hope to conduct a more extensive survey and environmental impact assessment, but their findings so far show not only the wealth of biodiversity but also that Balkan rivers are a haven for species missing from other European rivers. The Danube Salmon, for example, is historically native to countries throughout the Balkans and Central Europe within the Danube drainage system, but today its populations are severely fragmented, and the majority of populations are not self-sustaining due to disrupted river flow caused by hydropower schemes – like other migratory species, the Danube salmon requires free-flowing rivers to migrate upstream and downstream to reproduce and spawn.

Top image: Danube salmon, an endangered freshwater fish native to the Balkans regions. Image by Clemens Ratschan. Bottom image: Balkan lynx, an extremely rare subspecies of the Eurasian lynx. Image credited to Balkan Recovery Program/Macedonian Ecological Society.

However, it’s not only species within the river that depend upon these waters; there is much wildlife in neighbouring riparian habitats that are integral to local ecosystems. The Balkan lynx, for example, a rare and distinct subspecies of the Eurasian lynx listed as critically endangered with an estimated 20-39 mature individuals remaining, is found within areas threatened by proposed hydropower projects. One of the most significant threats to its extremely vulnerable population is habitat destruction and fragmentation and its limited prey base, and scientists believe that the Balkan lynx would suffer immeasurably from the impacts that hydropower schemes would have on their environment.

The ecological impacts of the proposed hydropower schemes will be far-reaching, as an impact on one species can disrupt the whole food web, ultimately leading to a downturn in biodiversity. Scientists predict that if the planned projects go ahead, many of the region’s vulnerable species – 30 of which are listed as endangered – will be pushed closer to the brink and possibly become extinct. Even the smallest of changes can have huge consequences that ripple across the ecology. For example, without free-flowing rivers, sediment is no longer able to reach downstream habitats leaving them devoid of nutrients and therefore drastically altering plant life and, subsequently, insect and animal life. Additionally, with sediment stuck behind concrete walls, the downstream river will have a deficient sediment load, causing riverbed erosion and changing the river’s morphology, which consequently impacts the water table, leaving areas of land parched, dry and devoid of once-flourishing life, leading to further erosion.

Scientifically speaking though, much of the Balkans is still fairly unexplored due to limited access and the restrictive reign of communism in the twentieth century. New and endemic species are still being discovered, and there’s a high risk that undiscovered species may be lost if the hydropower schemes go ahead.

In the case of large dams, reservoirs flood over wetlands and forests, and the huge bodies of water heat up in the sun, becoming too warm for native fish to survive. These stagnant waters are prone to deadly algal blooms that make the water toxic, contaminating drinking water and riverine habitats, even many kilometres downstream. In addition, it is estimated that around 170 cubic kilometres of freshwater evaporates annually from dam reservoirs around the world; freshwater is a precious resource our growing population can’t afford to idly waste.

On the whole, as a result of the installation of the proposed schemes, the Balkans would begin to experience large-scale degradation that would perpetually worsen over time. Sadly, not even rivers in national parks are safe; astonishingly nearly 1,500 hydropower projects are proposed or being built in protected areas, including 118 in national parks. As Ulrich Eichelmann, CEO of Riverwatch, an NGO focusing on the protection of rivers, aptly asserted, “Why on earth do you establish a national park when you’ll build dams in there?”

In reaction to the proposed hydropower schemes in Mavrovo National Park in Macedonia (FYROM) – one of the oldest national parks in Europe – Gabriel Schwaderer, CEO of nature conservation foundation EuroNatur, said: “National parks are there to protect large ecosystems from human interference. The hydropower development plans in Mavrovo National Park would not only destroy its natural treasures, but also constitute an assault on the very idea of national parks.”

Sadly, not even rivers in national parks are safe; astonishingly nearly 1,500 hydropower projects are proposed or being built in protected areas, including 118 in national parks. As Ulrich Eichelmann, CEO of Riverwatch, an NGO focusing on the protection of rivers, aptly asserted, “Why on earth do you establish a national park when you’ll build dams in there?”

The Dam Truth

All dams are dirty. And so is the hydropower they create.

New research about the greenhouse gases emitted from hydropower schemes is changing the way the international community, as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are viewing hydropower. Too-often, hydropower is touted as “green and clean energy"; but it is fast becoming evident that it is one of the worst energy sources in relation to nature and people, sending species to extinction, displacing communities globally, and contrary to popular belief, contributing to climate change.

Writing for Undark Magazine in an article titled “The Allure and Perils of Hydropower”, Lois Parshley writes: “In some cases, greenhouse gas emissions from hydropower are actually higher than a comparable fossil fuel power plant. Philip Fearnside, an ecologist, found that just 13 years after it was built, the Curuá-Una Dam in Amazonian Brazil emitted 3.6 times more greenhouse gases than generating the same amount of electricity from oil.”

Dam reservoirs experience high levels of decomposition of organic compounds brought downstream that build up and emit millions, even billions, of tons of greenhouse gases (GHG) – notably methane, which, as a GHG, is around 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Staggeringly, despite hydropower schemes having been in action for well over a century, research into their GHG emissions is relatively new, and for years these emissions have been missing from international inventories. To put it into scale, researchers believe that the output of GHGs from reservoirs globally is greater than that of Canada. Or to put it another way, their emissions contribute to over 4% of the total warming impact of human activities on the planet.

Pictured above in front of the Jablanica Dam on the River Neretva in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Afan Hajduk was only an infant when in the early 1950s his community was displaced and his village submerged under a dam reservoir.

The People and The Protest

In addition to environmental devastation, the instalment of hydropower schemes can deeply impact communities along the rivers’ banks. The human connection with rivers runs deep; we rely on rivers for freshwater and food. Since the onset of agriculture, humans have used rivers to irrigate land to grow crops and keep livestock, and today it is estimated that freshwater fisheries sustain up to 550 million people globally. But once dammed and diverted, rivers are no longer able to deliver sediment downstream to enrich the soil with nutrients needed to keep the ground fertile and productive. The deepening of eroding riverbeds due to sediment deficient flow can cause groundwater to lower, which can directly impact water supply and create the need for irrigation in areas where previously there was none. Hydropower schemes have the potential to completely alter the way of life of communities that have thrived in harmony with their local environment for generations. What’s more, many hydropower projects cause the displacement of communities – globally it is believed that between 40-80 million people have been forced to move from their homes to allow for construction or the flooding of a reservoir.

Under one proposal, the Albanian village of Kuta would be submerged under the reservoir of the proposed dam at Poçem – a major threat to the Vjosa. Locals would be robbed of their lands, their homes, their family histories, and have their rural livelihoods snatched from them. “We don’t want to see the Vjosa ruined. We don’t want the power plant. We don’t want our lands destroyed,” protests one local woman. In March 2016, the Albanian government granted the concession for the dam to be built; however, the local community, alongside scientists, environmentalists and conservationists, rallied against the proposal, determined to be heard. “Our rivers will be free”, they demanded. In December 2016, together with NGOs EcoAlbania, Riverwatch and EuroNatur, 38 locals filed a lawsuit with the Albanian Administrative Court against the hydropower project. Good news came on May 2, 2017, when the court ruled in their favour. They had won. More than that, they had won the first environmental lawsuit in Albanian history.

The community of Kruščica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, protesting on the access bridge into their village.

In other parts of the region, the protest is more grassroots. In Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), there is a rumbling movement of organised individuals intent on resisting the damming and diverting of their prized rivers. In the town of Fojnica, in a 10-year battle, locals have rallied to block access to construction vehicles to the river Željeznica. For a straight 325 days and nights, they stayed on guard, ready to stop any trucks that may try to begin work at the proposed site. The town’s resistance managed to hold off construction until the developer’s permits expired. In the neighbouring valley of Kruščica, a brave community of women continue to blockade and occupy an access bridge 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in an effort to challenge two proposed hydropower schemes and protect their drinking water. Horrifically, on August 24, 2017, the peaceful protesters fell victim to the brutal violence of law enforcement as they were forcibly removed from the bridge, with many experiencing serious injuries. The construction vehicles were able to bypass the beaten protesters; however, locals continued their protest until the site was vacated. Nobody is sure what comes next, but the villagers are intent on resisting the construction.

Hydropower schemes have the potential to completely alter the way of life of communities that have thrived in harmony with their local environment for generations. What’s more, many hydropower projects cause the displacement of communities – globally it is believed that between 40-80 million people have been forced to move from their homes to allow for construction or the flooding of a reservoir.

In both villages, brave women have been on the frontline in a bid for peaceful activism, worried that having men at the fore of the campaign would incite a violent backlash. Their unwavering commitment, through the cold days and nights out on guard, is beyond inspiring. They disregard the legal actions taken against them; for them, their right to clean drinking water reigns far higher importance. This grassroots activism and fiery passion is motivating others across BiH and the Balkans who face similar threats to push back against proposed projects that will drastically alter their lives, their environment and the identity of the region. These communities do not accept that they are voiceless against the government, the developers, and the financial backers. They are empowered to stand up for both themselves and nature.

Many generations of the brave women of Kruščica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, guard the river day and night, protecting their community’s only source of fresh water.

The Bigger Picture

With so many negative effects, why are these projects steamrolling ahead? Many investors and developers tout these projects as a way to produce “clean energy” and improve the lives of locals. However, as shown by hydropower schemes around the world, it is rarely local communities that see the benefits. In fact, quite the opposite: in 2014, Should We Build More Large Dams? The Actual Costs of Hydropower Megaproject Development, a report prepared by Oxford University researchers documenting the findings of a four-year study on 245 large hydropower schemes across 65 countries, deemed hydropower schemes to make poor economic sense. Hydropower projects can become a financial burden for countries and their citizens, and when built with public funds they can negatively affect local investments in welfare and public services, and upkeep costs continue to drive up the projects’ debt.

Arguably, hydropower is seen as an investment opportunity. Large contracts are involved in the installation of hydropower schemes, particularly large dams, which can roll on for years, with most projects overrunning their estimated costs by considerable margins. Sadly, these projects can also be a conduit for corruption, particularly in politically unstable regions.

Within the context of the Balkans, “the destruction of these rivers is supported, to a large extent, by international financial institutions … and carried out by Western European companies. They promote dam projects as green investments, defending the destruction of nature as climate protection,” explains Ulrich Eichelmann, CEO of Riverwatch.

Some of the major financial backers of the projects in Balkans are the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), European Investment Bank (EIB), and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC). A Bankwatch report published in 2018 states an estimated 727 million Euros of loans have been provided by international banks for hydropower projects in the region, including “37 projects in protected areas like national parks and Natura 2000 sites, or internationally recognised areas of high biodiversity value such as Important Bird Areas."

Ulrich Eichelmann, CEO of Riverwatch, an NGO focusing on the protection of rivers, beside a threatened river in Bosnia.

Call to Action

Many organisations and NGOs, as well as conservationists, scientists, and concerned individuals, have united to campaign against the destruction of the Balkan river systems. These rivers are a monument in Europe that deserves preservation, and it is for the local and international community to come together to lobby against these proposals.

A coalition of local partners and NGOs, including EuroNatur and RiverWatch, has established the “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” campaign with the singular mission of saving Europe's last wild rivers. Working alongside them, Patagonia has also launched its global campaign by the same name, which invites people to join the petition to tell complicit banks to stop investing in these devastating projects. Other organisations and enthused campaigners are also rallying to the same cause. “Rivers have the power to unite people, no matter what nation they are in, no matter what religion,” tells Rok Rozman, former Olympic athlete turned environmentalist leading the Balkan River Defence, a river conservation movement connecting adventure sports and science to protect the last wild rivers of Europe. He continues, “you don’t need to be a biologist or a scientist to be a nature conservationist; you just need to be a human with a voice.”

In Albania, there is a vision to create Europe’s first wild river national park, Vjosa National Park. For locals, this would not only protect their water supplies, land, and livelihoods, for both them and generations to come, but it could also potentially bring a new economic income to the region through ecotourism and sustainable developments that celebrate and preserve the natural beauty of the local environment. People already come from across Europe to see what has long been lost from their own countries, and for many it may be the first time they have ever seen truly living wild rivers. Collectively, we must decide what type of world we want to live in, and whether rivers are simply blue lines on a map waiting to be developed, or ecological havens that deserve preservation.

Ulrich Eichelmann: “To me and many others, saving the Balkan rivers is the single most important nature conservation issue in Europe. We are aware that the challenge is huge and even a bit crazy. But how often do you get the chance to save a continental heritage? One day, people from all over the world will come to the Balkans to see Europe’s Blue Heart still beating. We will fight for it.” •

Story created in partnership with

This story is from Volume Ten

The Altitudes Volume

Look inside or buy now