Balkan governments are under mounting pressure to curb the construction of hydropower plants (HPPs) in national parks and wildlife areas, where hundreds of projects are planned or underway.
Environmental campaigners have already scored successes in halting new HPPs. In late July, Croatia’s environment ministry rejected Hrvatska Elektroprivreda’s impact study for its 68-MW Ombla HPP near historic Dubrovnik,
Courts in Republika Srpska (RS) have twice this year backed activists’ claims that environmental assessments on proposed plants in the Sutjeska National Park were flawed.
Political leaders in the RS town of Bihac have bowed to pressure from conservation groups and fishermen by reversing their support for an HPP on the Una River, which flows through a nearby national park.
Activists in the RS, the Bosnian Serb entity federal Bosnia and Herzegovina, also organised a petition drive calling on the local legislature to ban HPPs in protected areas, a measure campaigners hope will be tabled in September.
“We’ve had huge success in organising a citizens’ campaign against hydro plants in national parks,” said Natasa Crnkovic, president of the Centre for Environment in Banja Luka. “We will not stop here.”
Environmental campaigners contend that Balkan parks and nature preserves harbour some of Europe’s most pristine watercourses, and that governments are obliged under their Energy Community and European Union commitments to protect them from development.
A recent study of 11 Balkan countries produced by the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign estimates that there are 1,640 HPPs with a capacity of at least 1 MW planned in the region. Nearly half, or 817, of those on the drawing board are in national parks or other protected areas. Researchers did not include plants of less than 1 MW.
The study, produced by the Fluvius engineering and river management consultancy in Vienna, contends that “the harmful development of hydropower is an ongoing threat, not only for the park areas itself, but also for downstream areas in the long run.”
Utilities, including those in Albania and Macedonia, did not respond to requests for comment. However, supporters contend that rivers are a sustainable energy source and that dams can protect riparian communities and farmland from floods.
Environmental campaigners counter that the Balkans’ mix of record-setting droughts and damaging floods in recent years make hydro an increasingly unreliable source of electricity. They call for more investment in wind and solar capacity, and stronger measures to reduce waste.
Conservationists have gained international support in their bid to block HPPs in natural areas.
In Macedonia, the Council of Europe is reviewing plans for two HPPs in the Mavrovo National Park to determine if they breach Macedonia’s commitment under the Bern Convention to protect the region’s biodiversity. The findings are due later this year.
In April, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on Albania, an EU candidate, to reconsider its plans to construct more than two dozen HPPs along the Vjosa River and its tributaries. International lenders have also curtailed support for controversial projects.
Campaigners say both local action and international oversight are starting to pay off.
“A few years ago the governments were not interested in us, they would just say these are priority projects and we don’t care,” said Ana Colovic Lesoska, a Macedonian campaigner for the CEE Bankwatch Network, which monitors the social and environmental policies of international financial institutions.
Yet because of pressure, “our governments have become more alert and more cautious.”