Hydropower Struggle Dams Threaten Europe's Last Wild Rivers

Ulrich Eichelmann / RiverWatch

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Part 2: Damming the Biosphere


Two large dams are planned for Mavrovo National Park, one of those at Lukovo Pole. The place is perched high in the mountains, where the trees give way to dewy alpine meadows and biodiversity is at its apex. A nearby valley may become a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage status.

The planned Lukovo Pole Dam will be 71 meters tall. A new road must be paved through the park in order to build it. In July, the World Bank will decide whether to support the project with $70 million in funding.

Further down, in the valley, is the Boskov Most, the last refuge of the Balkan lynx. That's where a dam is planned which will block the Mala Reka River. The EBRD has already pledged €65 million for the construction project. A narrow road leads uphill along the Mala Reka. After driving for a few minutes, Eichelmann stops the car and jumps out. The first snow of winter lies across the valley like a porous blanket. The air is stingingly cold. The river froths and roars.

Eichelmann scrambles down the embankment. Suddenly he comes upon a world of light and shadow, cold and moisture. The water burbles over moss-covered rocks, disappearing into hidden hollows, forcing its way through ridges of icicles.

On an overhanging rock, a white-throated dipper has built a nest out of moss. There, among a labyrinth of roots and stones, live species of trout found only in the Balkans and the larvae of caddis flies and dragonflies. "That's what I love: this unique variety," says Eichelmann. What will happen to the Mala Reka when the dam is built? "The riverbed will be dry most of the time," he says. The water of the future reservoir will still flow through the Mala Reka, but only in times of high electricity demand. Engineers call the technique "hydropeaking." Once a day, a tidal wave will rip through the valley.

Biologists fear that a majority of the ecosystem's plants and animals would not survive the daily deluge. Furthermore, the roads necessary for the construction of the dam would fragment the Mavrovo reserve, making life difficult for wild animals there.

'We Need Hydropower'

International investors seem not to care. "None of the comprehensive studies and additional monitoring undertaken has suggested that the project could affect the national park status of Mavrovo," the EBRD said in a statement. The power station operator for the power company ELEM likewise chose a reassuring tone, saying that the project would not endanger diversity.

Macedonia is one of the member states of the "Regions 202020 Network." The countries involved have pledged to increase the share of renewable energies in their mix to at least 20 percent by 2020 and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent relative to 1990 levels in the same time period. "We need hydropower to take care of the future of our country," says ELEM head Dejan Boskovski.

But international pressure is increasing. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) passed a resolution demanding that the dam project in Mavrovo be abandoned. And last week, several hundred European researchers, including the German natural scientist Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, a former German parliamentarian and nephew of the ex-German President Richard von Weizsäcker, appealed directly to the World Bank and the EBRD in an effort to halt financing for the Mavrovo dam. "We are surprised that your institutions have even considered supporting these dam projects," reads the open letter. The projects "undermine the very idea of national parks" and "violate EU law, such as the Natura 2000 Directives and the Water Framework Directive."

If nothing happens, "these rivers will be destroyed just as ours were in the 1970s, and it will be done with our help," says preservationist Ulrich Eichelmann. "I am not opposed to hydropower, but we need a master plan for the Balkans to determine where it is okay to build such power plants and where it is not."

A Glimmer of Hope

Many of those countries in the Balkans that aren't yet members of the EU would ultimately like to join. "One of the things these countries have to offer the union is scenery," Eichelmann says.

But most Balkan countries remain mired in economic crisis. And where there is a paucity of money, environmental protection often takes a back seat. Not even a rigorous look at river diversity has been undertaken thus far.

Still, the economic crisis could indirectly benefit the rivers. In many places, dam construction projects have become playthings for speculators -- which is why Albania's Energy Minister Gjiknuri has revoked some building permits. "Many investors haven't started construction at all, but were trying to trade their licenses on the black market," he says. "Some only pretended" to build "so that they could increase their price in the market."

Gjiknuri doesn't explicitly mention the half-finished Kalivaç dam. But he can't hide the fact that he is unhappy with the situation there too. With good reason. Despite the energy with which Becchetti presents his Vjosë River project, almost no progress has been made in the last four years.

That gives Ulrich Eichelmann a glimmer of hope. "Thus far, no irreparable harm has been done to the Vjosë," he says. "We will do everything we can to block the power plant -- but it is a race against time."

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snowyb 01/17/2014
1. Conservation
It would be thrilling to learn that corporations, rather than encouraging waste by producing unneeded and energy demanding products, tried being responsible and realizing their continued existence as an enterprise is conditional on the health of the planet and its many inhabitants. Reducing demand for the "Pied Piper" of energy can be done far better at a research and production level than by appealing to the very people victimized by such practices.
peskyvera 01/17/2014
2. optional
These days destroying our environment...is this not called 'progress'?
williger30 01/17/2014
3. no way
this person has money on his mind, no interest in the countryside at all. If he wants to build a dam, do it in his own country, in his own back yard.
sunsetbeachbum 01/17/2014
4. Agenda 21
Dams are clean energy. This should make it crystal clear that Agenda 21 is all about reducing the human population, not saving the environment. Agenda 21 needs to euthanize any human not living in a metro area. God Save Us.
crocyr 01/18/2014
5. Pain must be shared
It is neither fair nor realistic to ask of small poorer nations to shoulder burdens that should be evenly shared by the whole world. What is the rationale for pressuring nations in the Balkans or Africa not to build dams in the name of environmental concerns (which, by the way, I support) when they desperately need electricity to build their nations? The world must devise a more equitable system, or it is a no starter. I think organizations like International Rivers are self-serving, selfish, and callous.
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