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Europe's last wild rivers at risk from 'tsunami' of 3,000 hydropower dams, say campaigners

Fears projects will dry up essential tributaries and threaten ecosystems

Alex Matthews-King
Sunday 29 April 2018 16:30 BST
Blue Heart - Trailer

Some of the most diverse untouched habitats remaining in Europe are threatened by a “tsunami” of dam building which will divert and dry up swathes of previously pristine rivers.

New documentary Blue Heart aims to highlight how 3,000 hydropower plants planned across the Balkans will decimate some of the last wilderness areas in Europe in a bid to hit sustainability goals.

The projects will heap pressure on more than 30 species which are on the endangered species list, and many more threatened fish species.

From Slovenia to Greece, the documentary follows local communities which have depended on the rivers for centuries for food, water and farming and their fight against the projects being planned.

The film premiered on Saturday with a screening on the walls of the Idbar Dam in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“Nearly half of the projects are intended [to lie] within protected areas such as national parks and most face no requirement to conduct an environmental impact assessment", said Yvon Chouinard, founder of outdoor clothing company Patagonia, which funded the film.

“These dams could destroy the largest and last untamed river in Albania, drive the already threatened Danube salmon to extinction in Bosnia and Herzegovina, jeopardise the survival of the critically endangered Balkan lynx in Macedonia and displace communities across the region.

“It’s not too late to stop these disastrous projects.”

The Balkans has some of the healthiest waterways in Europe, with a major hydrological assessment finding 30 per cent are “pristine” with no signs of pollutants and 50 per cent are in very good health.

This is the opposite of central Europe, where years of intensive farming and industrialisation have threatened the once vibrant streams and rivers that support thousands of species and millions of people.

While a handful of the dams will be large scale and involve the flooding of existing rivers to form lakes, 91 per cent of the dams planned in the Balkans will have a capacity lower than 10 megawatts per hour, according to the Save the Blue Heart of Europe project.

Below this level there is no requirement to provide an environmental impact assessment, but the combined effect of repeated damming along the course of small waterways causes the lower levels of the river.

According to campaigners, This kills the habitats that depend on it, increases the risk of flooding and prevents nourishing sediment and carbon trapped in plant matter reaching the sea.

Many Balkan countries are also investing heavily in coal, upgrading and replacing existing power stations, but are considering how they will meet Paris Climate Agreement targets on renewable energy.

Those looking for EU membership will also be under pressure to deliver against sustainability targets, with the bloc aiming to have 27 per cent of energy coming from sustainable sources by 2030.

Dams are already common in the region, with around 1,000 active and 100 being built, but the new development will increase this by 300 per cent.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is one of the agencies funding new hydropower projects in the region, and has a plan to help governments’ transition to low-carbon economies.

In conjunction with the World Bank's International Finance Corporation and the European Investment Bank, more than €727m (£641m) has been poured into hydropower in the Balkans since 2005, analysis by Bankwatch Network and Save the Blue Heart found.

Activists are calling for these major funders to focus on less destructive forms of energy generation, and hope to prevent 1,000 other planned projects from receiving the backing they need.

“The Balkan rivers are of outstanding value within Europe. The dam tsunami is threatening biodiversity and local communities,” says Ulrich Eichelmann of Riverwatch, a society aimed at conserving and restoring rivers globally.

He added that commercial European banks are supporting “even the worst projects”, many of which would not meet environmental impact standards required in their own European countries.

“They have to stop the financing of hydropower in the Balkans,” he added.

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