Hydropower Struggle Dams Threaten Europe's Last Wild Rivers

Europe's last remaining wild rivers flow through the Balkans, providing stunning scenery and habitat to myriad plants and animals. But hundreds of dam projects threaten to do irreparable harm to the region's unique biospheres -- to provide much needed electricity to the people who live there.

By

Ulrich Eichelmann / RiverWatch

How did Europe's rivers look before they were tamed -- back when they were allowed to flow freely through the beds they spent centuries carving out?

Most of the Continent's waterways, like the Elbe, the Rhine and the Danube, have long since been hemmed in. But examples of Europe's largely vanished wilderness remain. Such as the Vjosë, which flows unfettered through its valley in southwestern Albania, splitting off into tributaries that once again flow together in a constant game of give-and-take with solid ground.

"With every flood, the Vjosë shifts its course," says Ulrich Eichelmann, a conservationist with the organization RiverWatch, as he looks across to the narrow ribbon of alluvial forest that clings to the side of the valley. "The river fills the entire valley," says the 52-year-old. "Such a thing in Europe can only be found here, in the Balkans." Then he pauses. On the opposite shore, a cormorant takes flight.

The Vjosë: 270 kilometers (168 miles) of river landscape, from the Pindus Mountains of Greece all the way down to the Adriatic Sea. Not a single dam disturbs the water's course. No concrete bed directs its flow. And every pebble tells a story, says Eichelmann -- of pristine mountain enclaves, of waterfalls, gorges and lakes.

The 'Blue Heart of Europe'

The Vjosë is not alone. Several crystal clear, untamed rivers rush through many countries in the region. "The blue heart of Europe beats in the Balkans," says Eichelmann, who, together with environmental organization EuroNatur, works to preserve these natural water systems.

Experts say that approximately 80 percent of rivers in the Balkans remain in good or very good ecological condition -- a paradise for fish, freshwater molluscs, snails and insects.

But Europe's last wild rivers are now at risk. More than 570 large dams, complete with hydroelectric power plants (each with a capacity of more than one megawatt), are planned for the region (see graphic).

With money from international financial institutions -- among them Deutsche Bank, the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) -- dam construction is well underway.

Eichelmann describes a "gold rush mentality," with the "hydro-lobby" grasping for the last untapped energy market in Europe. Just before the Balkan states are forced to comply with ecological regulations as part of the process of joining the European Union, the industry is trying to establish a fait accompli: "Something that has long been banned in the EU, they're now trying quickly to pull off in the Balkans," says Eichelmann. It's a sell-off of untouched nature in the name of green energy and climate protection.

Albanian Building Boom

In Albania, the taming of wild waterways is already in full swing. The poverty-stricken country is currently in the grips of a construction boom. Three large dams have already been completed on the Drin River in the north. The Norwegian company Statkraft has acquired concessions for construction on the Devoll River. And the Vjosë, too, is under threat. Eight dams are planned. One is already under construction, where the river squeezes through a narrow gap near the village of Kalivaç. Excavators there haul heaps of gravel and sand; the dam is to be nearly 50 meters high and 350 meters wide (165 by 1,150 feet).

The man behind the construction of this dam is an Italian named Francesco Becchetti. Back in Italy, the 47-year-old owns a construction and waste removal empire. He also owns an Albanian television station. Those wishing to meet him must first submit to screening at the hands of one of his TV journalists, before being escorted down a dusty road to Kalivaç. There, the industrialist waits with his entourage -- over a dozen sturdy men crowded around a bevy of expensive sedans.

At the office unit on the construction site, Becchetti shows his plans for the Vjosë dam. He's brought along a thick stack of expert reports. His project has already swallowed up €70 million ($93 million) he says, including money from Deutsche Bank. Meanwhile the financial institution has backed out of the joint venture.

During the walk to the half-finished construction site, the conversation turns to the Vjosë. Is Becchetti aware that he is dealing with one of Europe's last remaining wild rivers? No, answers the builder. "The dam won't be a problem for the environment," he says, "somebody had to explain this to me first, but we will add some steps for trout."

A fishladder for trout? To mitigate the total loss of a unique habitat? From the perspective of ecologists, it sounds like a bad joke. "If the Vjosë degenerates into a chain of reservoirs," fears Spase Shumka, from the department of natural sciences at the Agricultural University of Tirana, "the eel and mullet here, for example, would not be able to survive." The fish, endangered throughout Europe, currently migrate up to 200 kilometers (124 miles) up the Vjosë.

Countless birds, such as little ringed plovers, little egrets and great egrets are dependent on the rivers' floodplains, says Shumka. And many fish species found only in the Balkans, such as the Pindus stone loach, could be brought to the brink of extinction.

No Choice but Hydropower?

In the Albanian capital of Tirana, however, it quickly becomes clear that nature conservancy is not high on the Albanian government' priority list.

Minister of Energy and Industry Damian Gjiknuri lives in the government quarter along Dëshmorët e Kombit Boulevard. He made an honest effort during his first few months in office to raise understanding for nature conservation. But the country's energy supply is an issue closer to his heart.

"Albania is still importing 35 to 40 percent of its electricity needs," says Gjiknuri. In order to change that, Albania has no other choice but to pursue hydroelectric power. The potential is enormous: "We have the possibility to generate 10 times more electricity from hydropower."

For the same reason, the state-owned energy company Elektrani na Makedonija (ELEM) wants to build two dams in neighboring Macedonia -- in the middle of a national park.

The 73,000-hectare (180,000-acre) Mavrovo nature reserve lies on the border of Albania and Kosovo and is one of the oldest national parks in Europe. It contains old-growth beech forests, where wolves and bears still prowl. Its streams are home to otters, trout and freshwater crayfish. The pride of the region is the Balkan lynx; only about 50 specimens of the feline species continue to roam the woods -- extinction is well in sight.

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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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