Buk Bijela dam and the Upper Drina cascade
Planned as a joint project of public utilities owned by the Republika Srpska entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, Buk Bijela on the upper Drina is being pushed forward in violation of local legislation and international conventions.
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- Capacity: 93 MW
- Part of a series of planned hydropower plants on the upper Drina, along with the 44 MW Foča and 43 MW Paunci plants.
- In July 2017, a memorandum on construction of the project was signed with China National Aero-Technology International Engineering Corporation (AVIC-ENG).
- As of early 2022, no financing has been secured.
- Hydropower plants on the upper Drina would wreck the key habitat for the Danube Salmon, an endangered fish species
- The environmental permitting processes have been marred with ubiquitous legal violations including a lack of transboundary consultations
- Ongoing legal dispute on whether Republika Srpska needs to obtain state-level consent to issue concessions for the project.
- Lack of information available to the public on the project’s feasibility.
The river Drina is formed by the confluence of the Montenegrin rivers Tara and Piva at the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina. The 93 MW Buk Bijela hydropower plant is planned within Bosnia-Herzegovina, with its reservoir stretching upstream to the Montenegrin border.
Buk Bijela is being pushed by state-owned company Elektroprivreda Republike Srpske (ERS) and a memorandum on construction of the project was signed with China National Aero-Technology International Engineering Corporation (AVIC-ENG) in July 2017. We understand that Chinese state banks may be considering financing for the project, as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank have both confirmed that they will not finance it.
A larger version of the Buk Bijela project has been disputed since the 1970s due to its impacts on the protected Tara canyon in Montenegro, which is both a UNESCO World Heritage site and part of the Durmitor National Park.
The newer version, while smaller, also suffers from a number of issues inherent to the location of the planned plant. These issues also apply to the Foča and Paunci hydropower plants planned further downstream. A fourth plant, the 44 MW Sutjeska plant, was also planned at some point but has not been mentioned lately.
Drina – the key habitat for the endangered Danube Salmon
The river Drina constitutes the most significant habitat for the endangered Danube Salmon (Hucho hucho) in terms of habitat length. Over the last 100 years Hucho hucho has undergone a massive decline. It is now found only in a few of southeast Europe’s cleanest rivers. This fish is highly sensitive to low oxygen and moderate levels of pollution and is a good indicator for river health. This means that, if the river was in the EU, the stretches of importance for the Danube Salmon, including the upper Drina, would almost certainly be in the Natura 2000 network of protected areas. Moreover, the EU Water Framework Directive virtually forbids projects that degrade the good ecological status of water bodies. So this project would be unlikely to be allowed. In fact, the IUCN assesses that the main current threat to the species is the flow regulation from hydropower dams which impact the species, and their prey, habitat and pollution. Hucho hucho is protected under Annex III of the Bern Convention and Annex II of the European Union Habitats Directive as a species of community interest whose conservation requires the designation of special areas of conservation. This means that, if the river was in the EU, the stretches of importance for the Danube Salmon, including the upper Drina, would almost certainly be in the Natura 2000 network of protected areas and definitely under the EU Water Framework Directive – which virtually forbids projects that degrade the good ecological status of water bodies.
The environmental impact assessment for Buk bijela confirms the presence of Hucho hucho in the Drina. It mentions the construction of fish passes and the fact that these have rarely been implemented in the past for economic reasons, but also that it is uncertain whether they are effective for large fish species like the Danube Salmon. It mentions instead the practice of creating artificial spawning areas. However this seems highly unlikely to be effective for a fish which requires well oxygenated, fast-flowing water and low temperatures.
[There must be] no hydropower development, including micro-hydropower in rivers holding self-sustaining populations of Danube salmon.
Freyhof et al. in the Hucho hucho in the Balkan region report
The upper Drina projects are subject to several ongoing legal cases.
Environmental impact assessments were carried out for the Buk Bijela and Foča plants between 2011 and 2013, so are heavily outdated by now. They were also of extremely poor quality, failing to specify exactly which species are present at the site, using old hydrological data, failing to assess the cumulative impacts of the three dam projects, and claiming that Buk Bijela would not affect Montenegro without offering any evidence.
Yet the Republika Srpska authorities have not required updates to the studies. Partly as a result of this, the environmental permits for the Buk Bijela and Foča projects are subject to legal disputes on several levels.
In June 2018, the Aarhus Resource Centre from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, submitted complaints to the Banja Luka District Court against the extension of the environmental permits for Buk Bijela and Foča hydropower plants.
The court agreed in May 2019 that the request to extend the Buk Bijela permit had been submitted after the legally stipulated deadline and cancelled the permit, but in the case of Foča in November 2019, it came to the opposite conclusion, which is now being challenged at the Constitutional Court.
In December 2019 a new environmental permit was issued for Buk Bijela, however, no new environmental impact assessment was carried out, despite a request from Montenegro. The decision not to require a new environmental assessment is being challenged in court by the Aarhus Centre in Bosnia and Herzegovina and as of March 2022 the Republika Srpska Supreme Court is examining the case.
In June 2021 several NGOs submitted a complaint to the Energy Community Secretariat due to the Republika Srpska authorities’ failure to require new environmental assessments for the projects and due to the fact that the existing ones are not in line with the EU Environmental Assessment Directive. The complaint is under examination but has received a boost from a World Bank report which finds a number of deficiencies in the environmental impact assessments.
The Buk Bijela hydropower plant, if built, would impact Montenegro, especially the protected river Tara, because it would block fish migration from the narrow Tara canyon to spawning grounds downstream. Therefore, both the EU Environmental Impact Assessment and the Espoo Convention require transboundary public consultations.
The 2012 environmental assessment for Buk Bijela did not adequately examine the transboundary impacts. It did not look into the cumulative impacts of several hydropower plants in a relatively small area, nor seismological risk, impact on underground water, cave systems and biodiversity in Montenegro, nor the risk of landslides, or how sediment transport will be affected. Yet without any evidence, the study concluded that there would be no transboundary impact.
In 2019 Montenegro expressed interest in taking part in transboundary consultations based on a new environmental impact assessment but Republika Srpska did not require a new assessment. In May 2020, civil society organisations from Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina submitted a complaint to the Implementation Committee of the Espoo Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context. In December 2020 this was superseded by a complaint by the Montenegrin government. As of March 2022, the case is still under consideration.
In December 2020, 24 Parliamentarians from the House of Representatives in the state-level Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina announced they had submitted a request to the Bosnia and Herzegovina Constitutional Court to examine the Republika Srpska government’s decisions to issue concessions for Buk Bijela, Foča and Paunci.
They claimed the decisions breached the Bosnia and Herzegovina constitution, as it prevented the state-level institutions from being able to manage state property – in this case a river forming part of the country’s boundary. They also argued that previous decisions of the Constitutional Court had been breached, which found riverbeds and river water to be ‘public goods’ which are state property.
On 16 July 2021 the Constitutional Court made a partial decision, finding that a dispute regarding the decision by Republika Srpska to issue the concessions exists, and ordering the Commission for Concessions of Bosnia and Herzegovina to resolve the matter within three months. However, due to issues regarding the composition of the Commission, as of March 2022 the issue is still pending.
Lack of evidence on the project’s feasibility
The upper Drina area has developed small-scale tourism facilities based on rafting and angling whose activities would be prevented by any nearby dams. Yet no evidence has been published on the economic costs and benefits of the upper Drina projects, nor their financial feasibility.
A World Bank report published in late 2021 identified numerous issues in the design and feasibility assessment for the Buk Bijela and Foča projects, including a relatively high Levelised Cost of Energy (LCOE) for the Buk Bijela plant. It recommended updating the design of the project and updating the feasibility study of the two plants.