June 4, 2018 / 12:00 AM / 2 months ago

FEATURE -Threatening wilderness, dams fuel protests in the Balkans

KRUSCICA, Bosnia and Herzegovina, June 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - F or almost a year, a clutch of Bosnian women has kept watch over a wooden bridge to disrupt the march of hydropower - part of a Balkan-wide protest against the damming of Europe’s wild rivers.

From Albania to Slovenia, critics fear the proposed run of dams will destroy their majestic landscape, steal their water and extinguish species unique to the Balkans.

So the village women stake out the bridge around the clock, listening out for the telltale sounds of diggers on the move.

“We are always here, during the day, at night, always,” said Hata Hurem, a 31-year-old housewife, in the shadow of the towering mountains that dominate the Balkan landscape.

Clustered by a creek on the edge of the village of Kruscica, about 40 miles north west of Sarajevo, the local women have taken turns to stand firm, blocking trucks and scrapers from accessing the construction sites of two small plants.

Investment in renewable energy is growing worldwide as countries rush to meet goals set by the Paris Agreement on climate change. But from China to South America, dams cause controversy for flooding fragile ecosystems and displacing local communities.

Plans to build almost 3,000 hydropower plants were underway across the Balkans in 2017, about 10 percent of them in Bosnia, according to a study by consultancy Fluvius.

Authorities and investors say boosting hydropower is key to reducing regional dependency on coal and to falling in line with European Union energy policies as Western Balkan states move towards integration with the bloc.

The energy ministry of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of Bosnia’s two autonomous regions, where Kruscica is located, did not respond to a request for comment.

The government of Bosnia’s other region, Republika Srpska, said building dams was easier and cheaper than shifting towards other power sources.

“The Republic of Srpska has comparative advantages in its unused hydro potential and considers it quite justified to achieve the goals set by the EU by exploiting its unused hydropower,” said energy ministry spokeswoman Zorana Kisic.

DAMS AND PICKETS

Yet, critics say the “dam tsunami” - a term coined by anti-hydropower activists - endangers Europe’s last wild rivers, which flow free.

If rivers stop running freely, they say dozens of species, from the Danube Salmon to the Balkan Lynx, are at risk.

About a third of the planned dam projects are in protected areas, including some in national parks, according to the 2017 study, commissioned by campaign groups RiverWatch and Euronatur.

Most plants are small, producing as little as up to 1 MW each - roughly enough to power about 750 homes - but their combined impact is large as activists say they would cut fish migration routes and damage their habitat.

“Three thousand hydropower plants ... will destroy these rivers,” said Viktor Bjelić, of the Center for Environment (CZZS), a Bosnian environmental group.

“Many of the species depending on these ecosystem will disappear or will be extremely endangered.”

Some local communities fear displacement and lost access to water they’ve long used for drinking, fishing and farming.

In Kruscica, protesters say water would be diverted through pipelines, leaving the creek empty and sinking hopes for a revival of nature tourism that attracted hikers, hunters and fishing enthusiasts before war intervened in the 1990s.

“(The river) means everything to us, it’s the life of the community,” said Kruscica’s mayor Tahira Tibold, speaking outside the barren wooden hut used as base by demonstrators.

Locals first heard about the plants when construction workers showed up last year, added the 65-year-old.

Women have led protests since fronting a picket to shield men during a confrontation with police last year, said Tibold.

Campaigners have taken their plight to court, alleging irregularities in the approval process, and works have stalled. But demonstrators keep patrolling around the clock, said Bjelić of CZZS, as it is not known when or how the case will end.

SHADES OF GREEN

The protest was backed by U.S. clothing company Patagonia as part of a wider campaign to preserve Balkan rivers and dissuade international banks from investing in hydropower.

Banks and multilateral investors including the European Investment Bank (EIB), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC), fund hundreds of projects, according to a 2018 study by Bankwatch, a financial watchdog.

“It’s a waste of money and a moral travesty that some of the world’s largest financial institutions have embraced this out-dated and exploitative technology,” Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard said in a statement in April.

The World Bank, EBRD and EIB said their investments have to comply with environmental and social standards, which EBRD and EIB said they were strengthening.

EBRD said it also improved its assessment process and pulled out of some projects near protected areas.

“Hydropower is an important source of renewable energy for Western Balkans,” said EBRD’s spokeswoman Svitlana Pyrkalo.

Bosnia gets 40 percent of its electricity from hydropower, the rest from coal-fired power plants. It plans to increase the share of renewables to 43 percent by 2020, under a target agreed with the EU.

Dams are generally considered more reliable than wind and solar plants as they are less dependent on weather conditions.

But that could change with global warming if droughts and floods grow more common, said Doug Vine, a senior fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a U.S.-based think tank.

Last year a long drought lowered water levels across the Western Balkans, hitting hydropower output and driving up prices.

Campaigners say Balkan states should focus on solar and wind power as they involve less building works and cost less.

“Just because it doesn’t emit CO2 it doesn’t mean it’s good,” said Ulrich Eichelmann, head of RiverWatch.

“Is like saying (that) … smoking is healthy because it doesn’t affect the liver”. (Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths.

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