Dams endanger Balkan ecosystem
Plans for a network of hydropower projects in three western Balkan countries will cause “chain reaction” for endangered fish, a report by the University of Graz warns.
There is only one remaining free-flowing river left in Europe, untouched by human construction: the Vjosa begins as the Aoos in Greece’s Pindus mountains, where it crosses into Albania, passes through the Balkan mountains for 250km before reaching the Adriatic. The river is at the centre of what is known as the Blue Heart of Europe, where it creates numerous tributaries.
Nearly 10 per cent of European fish species will reportedly be pushed to the brink of extinction by the hydro-electric power project planned in the western Balkans.
Across the Balkan region as a whole, from Slovenia to Greece, 1,003 dams already exist, 188 are being built and 2,798 are being planned.
Activists warn that the schemes, financed by international banks, will cause permanent damage to the rivers, the wildlife and communities, as well as stifling an expanding tourist trade.
It said 11 endemic species would be wiped out, seven more were estimated to become critically endangered, four types of sturgeon would be devastated and species listed as endangered would double to 24, the Graz University study said.
The author, Professor Steven Weiss, said: “It is the largest systematic construction plan with negative environmental impacts that I know of, since the Second World War.”
The Balkans is regarded as Europe’s most important biodiversity hotspot for molluscs and fish.
“They put the river into the pipe, they channel it into a flow for power and for kilometres they dry the river completely,” said Mihela Hladin Wolfe, director of environmental initiatives at clothing brand Patagonia, which is campaigning against the dams. The firm has made a documentary, Blue Heart, on the Balkan issue. “They change the whole water scheme of the region.
“Hydro is an old technology. There are lower impact [sources] out there. Nature is slowly disappearing because of the decisions we are making.
In the Balkans, the Danube salmon could be driven to extinction and the survival of the endangered Balkan lynx in Macedonia is threatened.
One EU source said that the study “should give us pause for thought. It’s clearly not possible for everyone’s plan to be built. Otherwise, you’re just pouring concrete over the entire region.”
RiverWatch, the conservation group which co-commissioned the research, said 2,800 hydropower stations were planned or under construction in the Balkans with more than a third of them on Natura 2000 sites.
Three waterways in the Neretva basin, Morača and the upper Drina system, flowing through Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, host around 50 endangered and protected fish species.
The three countries are all investing heavily in hydropower in a bid to meet EU clean energy targets in their attempts to join the bloc.
The Vjosa. Picture credit: Wikimedia