More is known about rivers in the Amazon than Europe’s last wild waterways in the Balkans. But these unique ecosystems in southeast Europe could soon be gone, along with endangered species such as the Balkan lynx, if plans for over 2,000 dams go ahead, conservationists warn.
Western financial institutions have ploughed hundreds of millions of dollars into building dams in the region, arguing that hydropower is a green energy source that offers poor countries a way out of energy insecurity.
The Guardian has learned that the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is on the verge of cancelling one €65m (£48m) showcase project in Macedonia’s Mavrovo national park, after sustained environmental criticism centred on the potential extinction of the Balkan lynx.
But other projects are still in the pipeline, even if much of the energy they produce is destined for export.
On past trends, deforestation and soil erosion will follow, along with irrevocable changes to the course and character of untamed rivers, a quarter of which lie in pristine national parks and protected areas, according to new analysis by RiverWatch and Euronature.
“What we have here in the Balkans at the moment is a gold rush on the rivers,” says Ulrich Eichelmann, the director of RiverWatch, an Austria-based NGO. “I sometimes think the western countries that are financially supporting this degradation process have no idea what they are destroying. There is nothing in Europe remotely like this river system.”
From the mountains of Greece where it is known as the Aoös, the Vjosa flows for 270km to the Adriatic Sea, reaching a girth of 2.3km at its widest, its course and shape changing with the seasons and rainfalls.
“Scientifically we know more about some rivers in the Amazon than about the Vjosa,” Professor Fritz Schiemer of the University of Vienna told the Guardian. “We have very little knowledge about the biodiversity of the river ecosystem, and its ecological processes like sediment transport.”
But eight sites are being sized up for dam development along the Vjosa by foreign companies. The new Albanian government is privately resisting their approaches.
Edi Rama, Albania’s prime minister, told the Guardian that in his first six months in office, “I didn’t pass one day at work without someone calling or emailing me from Albania, Europe, or America, with this line: ‘We are interested in a hydropower plant development’.”
“Damian [Gjiknuri, the country’s energy minister] was overwhelmed. He said ‘What is this? Everyone wants to build a hydropower plant in our country. It looks as if we will repeat the great harm done by building illegal houses with hydropower plants everywhere and in the end we’ll have no water for irrigation’.”
Last year, foreign investment in extraction and privatisations across Albania’s hydropower sector made up almost 10% of the country’s GDP.
Across the Balkans, RiverWatch says it has evidence of 435 dams planned in Albania, 400 in Macedonia and Bulgaria each, 700 in Serbia, more than 100 in Bosnia and Hungary apiece, 70 in Montenegro and more than 50 in Slovenia.
In Albania, dam licenses already issued have an investment value of over £1.8bn, according to documents seen by the Guardian.
A quarter of the 646 larger hydropower plants that RiverWatch has analysed are in national parks and protected areas, or gold standard environmental sites covered by Natura 2000, Emerald, World Heritage, Ramsar and Biosphere.
Twenty-two of these are still slated for Mavrovo, Macedonia’s oldest and largest national park, a stunning 730 sq km wilderness of birch and pine forests, gorges, waterfalls, peat lands, and the country’s highest mountains.
Slate-coloured cliffs jut skywards until they disappear in mist. The air is alpine fresh. Snow-capped peaks and frosted pines tower above the remnants of avalanches on the park’s snaking roads. Beneath them, the raging ice blue Mala Reka river smashes itself upon rock clumps, churning up foam.
Mavrovo houses more than 1,000 plant species, and provides a sanctuary for bears, wolves, golden eagles and critically endangered species such as the balkan lynx, less than 50 of which are still thought to be alive.
But conservationists say that the planned dams will bring roads, transmission lines, noise, industrial disturbance and an influx of human activity, likely to scare animals from the park – making them easy prey for poachers.
“The lynx is a charismatic and very secretive animal,” says Alexander Stojanov, a project coordinator with the Balkan Lynx Recovery Project. “It prefers untouched wilderness areas where there are no disturbances. Construction would chase away the lynx’s prey and it will have to go outside the protected area – where there is no protection – and face the fate of being poached. There will definitely be a risk of extinction.”
The lynx is a beloved icon in Macedonia, etched into coins, stamps, and the national football team’s shirts. “It is our symbol in the world,” said Shuip Marku, a former farmer in nearby Debar town. “It is our lion.”
Despite that, poachers are active even inside the park and are believed to have killed one lynx that Stojanov’s team had fitted with a GPS collar. After an EBRD report denied that any lynx were present in the park, Macedonia’s environment ministry refused the Lynx Recovery Project permission to set any more photo traps, and the last feline pictures were taken in 2013.
The EBRD was later forced to retract that claim but its impact assessment for the dam was widely criticised for another suggestion that dams would help otters by increasing their access to food.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) complained of a “superficial, incomplete and misleading” assessment that showed an “absence of basic understanding of otter behaviour as well as the functioning of river ecosystems”.
In a letter to the EBRD seen by the Guardian, the IUCN’s director, Julia Marton-Lefèvre urged the EBRD to halt its funding for a hydropower project at Boškov Most in Mavrovo, saying it presented “direct threats to critical species and habitats present in the area”.
Almost 100,000 people signed a petition against the project, 119 environmental scientists protested, and in December, the standing committee of the Bern Convention added to the pressure, opening an inquiry into the levees.
An EBRD spokeswoman told the Guardian that no funds had yet been disbursed for Boškov Most and the project is currently suspended . “At the moment, there is a [new] environmental assessment going on. Until it is finished, nothing is going to go ahead,” she said.
A bank source added: “There’s a lot of anger from conservationists and that makes work on the ground for our staffers very difficult. It is very likely that we will have to turn around and walk away from it.”
The World Bank, however, is still planning a €70m loan to build another large dam in Mavrovo at Lukovo Pole, in a border area with Kosovo, where the national dividing lines were recently changed in a way that fortuitously allowed the dam’s construction.
Across the Mavrovo region, dam proposals also have an ethnic dimension, sparking fury from local ethnic Albanian communities – a minority in Macedonia – who say that they would divert waters from their villages, which already suffer water shortages in summer, and destroy local agriculture, as well as ‘slow food’ culinary traditions.
“It is a big problem,” Marku said. “People believe that these projects are intended to steal the water and force Albanian people off their land.”
Thousands of ethnic Albanians have already emigrated from Debar, staging anti-dam demonstrations in countries such as Italy that mirror protests in Debar, although these are often staged in defiance of what Marku and others say is official intimidation.
In Albania about a third of energy is imported but the rest comes from hydropower, which is classified by the International Energy Agency thinktank as renewable. The country is regularly hit by blackouts all the same.
Some environmentalists question whether hydro should be classed as a clean energy. “It is not renewable as neither the landscape nor its biodiversity are renewable,” Eichelmann said. “When they are gone, they are gone.”
WWF is more supportive of hydro but says that stringent environmental criteria are needed.
“The siting of hydro in protected areas is a real problem in south-east Europe,” said Jason Anderson, WWF Europe’s head of climate and energy. “Sometimes a location is absolutely not appropriate, and we fight against that. But there are also adequate sites that can be found, when countries cannot meet their energy needs in other ways.”
Albania views new hydro plants as a source of energy independence and “a good source of hard energy for export”, according Gjiknuri. But around 42% of the country’s electricity supplies are lost in distribution, often due to theft from electricity lines.
The government claims great advances in curbing power piracy but many Albanians expect this to be reversed as price hikes from privatised hydro projects are rapidly passed on by foreign firms looking to recoup investment costs.
“The local people will not get energy for free for sure,” said Gilberto Yaceh, the mayor of Përmet, a picturesque town on the Vjosa. “They will pay for it. The dams bring nothing good for the local people.”
Albania’s energy ministry has put dozens of projects authorised in the last year on hold, but says that its hands are tied by fears of warding off foreign investment.
More than 200 Sali Berisha-era projects have been cancelled, which Edi Rama links to “a kind of black market of corruption... a madness”. But Albania walks a thin line between preserving its beauty and economic needs, he added.
What’s so unique about the Vjosa is not just that the river itself is intact but that its tributaries are too
Rama is a former artist, who painted Tirana’s Stalinist-era buildings in kaleidoscopic colours when he was the city’s mayor. Environmentalists view him as a natural ally but he gives the impression of lacking the full power to roll back an environment free-for-all he disdains.
“The international financiers have not generally been as careful as they would have been if these things were being built in their courtyards,” he noted. “It is the curse of poor countries.” The Albanian prime minister says that he asked the EBRD to finance small-scale agricultural production instead, but “they were more interested in hydro”.
One dam, in Kalivac, reached an advanced stage before controversy stalled its progress, leaving a concrete hulk on the river’s banks. “The trees along the river and on higher ground above it have been deforested since the beginning of the work,” Astrit Taka, a forestry worker in Kalivac told the Guardian. “Fifty-six hectares of plane and poplar trees in the river region have been cut down.”
The rivers of the Balkans inspire a deep attachment among the people who live near them – and songs too, like Poni’s 2010 Albanian hit ‘Vjosa (Lumi I Kenges)’, which still booms from bars along the riverside. .
“What’s so unique about the Vjosa eco system is not just that the river itself is completely intact but that its tributaries are too,” Eichelmann says. “They have their flood plains and the sediments they transport to the sea in a balanced system that’s almost impossible to find anywhere else in Europe. We all grew up with rivers more or less damaged, regulated and dammed. This makes the Vjosa extraordinarily important as a model for the rivers we need to restore across the EU.”
By 2027, Europe’s water framework directive will require all countries’ bodies of water to be of a good ecological status. Ironically, for Macedonia and Albania to fulfil their aspirations of EU accession, they may need to roll back the effects of a hydropower boom that the EU’s investment banks have foisted upon them.
The EU’s 2014 progress report on Macedonia’s accession bid said that the two big hydropower plants in Mavrovo raised “concerns about the potentially detrimental effect on the environment”.
Albanian hopes of EU membership by 2020 fared little better with the EU chiding it for a fragile power sector that is not very advanced in preparation for accession. An “almost exclusive reliance on hydropower exposes Albania to large fluctuations in power generation, resulting in large electricity imports in low-rainfall years,” the EU found.
Commission sources acknowledge effects that the planned dams are likely to have on the Balkans’ 69 fish species, but also the problems that new members often have with meeting the union’s environmental rules.
Balkan leaders such as Edi Rama say that a “huge investment” is needed to protect the region’s rivers from environmental degradation. But of late, EU officials have been more keen to push Tirana into clamping down on illegal cannabis growing than protecting its waterways.
“I don’t want to talk more about how EU money is planned,” Rama said. “It is to enter into a kingdom of wishful thinking. I have no illusions about it.”
“I understand we need to have prisons, courts, rule of law, all this,” he went on. “But just by improving the repressive side of the state you don’t improve the quality of life. Albania is rich in water, oil, minerals and presumably rich in gas but the biggest asset we have is beauty and the worst thing we’ve done in 20 years has been to draw scars on our country’s beautiful body.”
Environmentalists fear that these wounds could fester as flood plains disappear and water flows are channelled into narrower courses that are deeper, higher and move at faster speeds. Soil erosion caused by dam-related deforestation accentuates the process, adding to water volumes at flood peaks, which can only be controlled by opening sluice gates and letting out a torrent of water.
Albania may have received a taste of things to come earlier this month when it was buffeted by the second worst floods in its history.
“If the Kalivac dam construction is finished and the water level rises in a flood, they would have to open the sluice gates next time so the flood would be greater,” said Servet Boni, a forestry engineer in Tepelena on the Vjosa’s banks.
“There will be an ecological catastrophe,” added Philip Deman, a forestry worker from the same town. “Not only for biodiversity but for the landscape. All this beauty will be lost.”