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For our rivers, for our lives - activists from across the globe meet in Tbilisi, Georgia

The Neretva river in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Photo: Zeleni Neretva

85 river and dam activists from 40 countries and all continents gather in Tbilisi, Georgia this week to share experiences about their efforts to protect the world’s rivers and join their struggles against destructive hydropower projects.

The meeting, organised by Bankwatch and International Rivers comes at a time when dams are back in fashion, being considered as a clean and green source of energy, even though dam reservoirs are increasingly recognised as major greenhouse gas emitters.

In the 1990s investors including the World Bank had withdrawn from large hydropower installations over environmental and social concerns. Yet despite their resurrected enthusiasm, dams continue to be opposed (with some success!) by communities across the world for their destructive impacts on local ecosystems and livelihoods.

In Georgia, where the meeting takes place, the government and investors are fixated on tapping unused hydropower resources in remote and fragile mountain areas. In Upper Svaneti in the country’s north-west, 35 projects are planned in an area roughly the size of Mallorca in the Enguri river basin. Locals look back at decades of opposition to dam projects in the area and have so far successfully blocked the destruction of their homes and livelihoods.

Photo story

The community of Chuberi will lose part of its land should the Nenskra dam be built.

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Further east, some of the most important river systems in Central Asia are under threat with the Lake Baikal basin and the Amur River basin. In 2016, protests led to the freeze of a USD 1 billion loan by the China Export-Import Bank for the Egiin Gol hydropower project, one of several potential projects in the Lake Baikal basin. Not too far away, plans for several large dam projects in the Amur River basin – the largest transboundary free-flowing river of North Eurasia and China – are currently frozen following concerted efforts from opponents.

Rivers don’t know borders

The cross-border dimension of riverflows is becoming especially pronounced in the Middle East, where among others the Ilisu Dam in southeast Turkey may threaten the environmental, cultural and economic situation of downstream communities in Iraq as well as Iraq’s Marshlands that were included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Another case, Iran’s Daryan Dam, set to be completed by 2018 is feared to have a destructive impact on the water flows to Iraqi Kurdistan.

River campaigners in the region acknowledge this transboundary importance. The Tigris and Iraqi Marshes Campaign for instance insists that water could be a force for peace, igniting cooperation between all countries of the Tigris-Euphrates basin. EcoPeace Middle East, another group represented at this week’s river gathering, looks beyond nationalities by working with communities from all faiths to stop the degradation of Jordan River and rehabilitate it as an important intercultural, traditional and life-supporting water source. (See for instance their guide for tourist guides.)

Small is not always beautiful

But also plans for small hydropower installations must be treated with care, as the situation in the Western Balkans illustrates. A study by Austrian NGOs Riverwatch & Euronatur showed that 817 or 49% of all projected hydropower plants in the wider Balkan region, most of them small, fall in protected areas. Weighing their biodiversity footprint against their often minimal carbon savings, makes the more than thousand projects planned in the Balkans seem rather irresponsible.

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Small hydro projects threaten the blue heart of Europe in the Balkans.

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The range of experience represented at the meeting will be rounded up by campaigners from the Americas, Africa, and South-East Asia, who will have stories to share from the Magdalena river campaign in Colombia and the Inga 3 dam in the Democratic Republic of Congo among others.

For impressions from the meeting and more from participating organisations, follow the hashtag #RiverGathering on Twitter.