From: Alice Taylor
Comment: Is the Tide Turning on Balkan Hydropower Projects?

Montenegro’s new government has announced that it will take a hard stance on hydropower plants, essentially banning them and reviewing all existing concession agreements.

Under the 30-year leadership of the Democratic Party of Socialists, considerable damage was done to the country’s rivers through the proliferation of any small hydropower plants. But shortly after taking power, the new government adopted a document on the implementation of renewable energy projects. 

As well as refusing to issue more permits, they also pulled the plug on the construction of the Slatina plant on the Slatina River, built by the son of President Milo Dukanovic. The ban will stay in place until a review of all processes and documents for concession agreements has been completed to ensure they are legal.

A total of seven concession agreements have been stopped so far.

Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic addressed parliament and said his government would implement protection measures that would ensure Montenegro is a truly ecological state. He added that a green economy is one of the government’s seven main priorities.

“So far only privileged individuals benefited from the construction of small hydropower plants, often by corruption and nepotism, by winning concessions for the construction of the said facilities on our rivers at the expense of our citizens who paid the costs through their electricity bills. Our water streams, the majority of which rises in Montenegro territory, are one of the biggest national treasures of Montenegro and they have to be preserved as our country’s natural heritage,” Krivokapić stressed.

He added there was corruption in the granting of concessions which directly hurt river ecosystems and public finances. He said the government would amend the law on energy and assess all current agreements.

At the end of 2020, the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina decided to abolish subsidies for small HPPs. From January 1, 2021, incentives for small hydropower plants will no longer be granted, and the funds planned for them will be diverted to other renewable energy sources, the FBiH government said. This came after a June decision to ban the construction of small plants in the country.

More than 400 plants were planned in the country of which 100 had been constructed. 

In October 2020, four environmental groups submitted a complaint against the BiH authorities to the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats for failing to protect the upper stretches of the Neretva River from no less than eight planned HPPs.

Described as “one of the most pristine river ecosystems in the Balkans”, the upper Neretva is a wilderness region with little human presence. It was nominated as an Emerald Site under the Convention in 2011 but is under threat from a 35 MW Ulog HPP and seven smaller planned plants.

The complaint relates to what the groups describe as “serious flaws” in the environmental permitting process. They said the environmental impact assessments identified only a few of the species likely to occur near the plants but still said the projects could go ahead. They failed to note the presence of several species including bears, wolves, otters, crayfish, and a certain kind of trout.

“The upper Neretva river is a natural jewel of the Balkans. With the surrounding pristine forests, it forms a wilderness area that is unparalleled in Europe. The dam projects would not only destroy this ecosystem, but Bosnia-Herzegovina would also violate ratified international agreements. That´s why we file these complaints,” says Ulrich Eichelmann, coordinator of the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign from Riverwatch.

“According to the research done so far, the area around the source and the upper course of the Neretva River has been confirmed to be an exceptionally intact ecosystem. These projects need to be stopped due to its exceptional value as no mitigation measures could preserve this area,” adds Jelena Ivanic from the Center for Environment.

Despite positive steps in the approach towards HPPs, the Neretva’s future still hangs in the balance.

In 2019, Albanian Minister of Energy Belinda Balluku said the government would be considering whether small HPPs were worth pursuing. She announced the freezing of work on all new hydro plants and a review of 182 licenses issued to build 440 plants.

The EU progress report for the country published some months later included harsh criticism on environmental issues.  

Government initiatives to construct hydropower plants, waste incinerators and tourist resorts, particularly in protected areas, as well as lack of legislation and administrative capacities have drawn the European Commission’s disapproval.

The EC raises concerns regarding permits awarded by the Albanian government to construct potentially highly damaging structures in protected areas. It adds that proper procedures were not followed in awarding such permits, including impact assessment and public consultations. Furthermore, proper environmental legislation has not been approved and culprits of illegal activities have not been held accountable.

The report specifically mentions protected areas in Divjaka / Karavasta (also here) and Vjosa.

Despite concerns over HPPs, the US announced it would finance the construction of a big plant  in Skavica in the north-east of the country.

The Skavica hydropower plant is the country’s most strategic energy project, and Albania’s most important water reservoir, holding about 7 billion cubic meters. This makes it the largest reservoir in Europe.

The reservoir of Skavica is a significant national resource, being three times larger than the Fierza lake and twice as big as the entire Drin river cascade.

Meanwhile, several delicate ecosystems in the country remain under theat. For example,  the Lure-Mali i Dejes National Park. Located in northeastern Albania it comprises over 202 square km and encompasses the former Zall-Gjocaj National Park and Deje Mountain. It was established as a National Park in 1966 to give protection to the various flora and fauna within. 

It is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as a Category II and is home to brown bears, lynx, wolfs, pine martens, roe deer, golden eagles, and beech, fir, pine, ash, and maple trees. With its borders, it also contains twelve glacial lakes that were formed during the ice age.

In 2018, the government granted permission for the HEC Borie-Lure 1 hydropower plant to be built northeast of the park, in the village of Burie. The catchment area of the plant will include two of its 12 famous lakes

Plans have been in the works for the plant for over five years but just recently, one of the construction companies involved has started efforts to collect the signatures of residents so work can commence.

While the plant, reservoirs, and dams are expected to be built outside of the protected areas, the project envisions collections of water from areas within the Park.

The HEC Borie-Lura is one of over 100 hydropower plants that the Rama administration has given permission for. Last year Rama said that small power plants are useless as they harm nature more than they provide economic benefits. Despite this, he seems to be doing little to stop the construction of power plants in, or nearby, protected areas.

There are currently at least 60 hydropower plants planned or being built in 12 protected areas of the country. 

In 2018, the government granted permission for the HEC Borie-Lure 1 hydropower plant to be built northeast of the park, in the village of Burie. The catchment area of the plant will include two of its 12 famous lakes.

Plans have been in the works for the plant for over five years but just recently, one of the construction companies involved has started efforts to collect the signatures of residents so work can commence.

While the plant, reservoirs and dams are expected to be built outside of the protected areas, the project envisions collections of water from areas within the Park.

In Valbone, citizen organisation TOKA, led by Catherine Bohne is in the midst of several legal challenges against companies and the government, who are intent on building HPP Dragobia in Tropoje.

In 2018, TOKA and Bohne filed criminal charges against Dragobia Energy for working with an expired construction permit. Seven local people were listed to testify that work on the HPP was continuing.

The court dismissed their case stating that the permit was automatically renewed because the government didn’t respond to it. TOKA pointed out that this ‘silent’ approval only applies in cases of extensions and can only take place one time. This particular permit had already been extended so did not benefit from the ‘silent’ approval mechanism.

TOKA plans to appeal. In their statement, they said:

“This ruling follows a pattern of numerous other illegal court actions – such as the 2018 move of Tropoja Court to block the Tirana Appeals Court order for Dragobia Energy to halt construction, and the innumerable delays created by Gener2’s defense team which have served only to allow ongoing environmental destruction. The situation seems to TOKA and local residents as clear indicators that the community does not have access to functioning justice or rule of law, which they consider to be infringements of our basic human rights.”

They concluded that they plan to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Also last week, a group of organisations sent a proposal to the Albanian authorities to propose the establishment of the Vjosa Wild River National Park.

It aims to categorize Vjosa Wild River a National Park, meaning not allowing any dams or hydropower plants (HPP) to be built along it’s 192 km outstretching within the Albanian territory. 

Exit has been informed by a source from within one of the involved NGOs who wished to remain anonymous for fear of prejudicing the ongoing issue, that the government is scheduled to meet soon to “revisit and redefine protected areas in Albania”. It is believed that this proposal and the Albanian Alps project could be on the table. This would see the area protected from HPP projects. 

The source stated that resistance is ongoing from the Ministry of Energy which wants small-scale HPP rights to be included in the new park. HPPs are allowed to be constructed in protected areas, but not national parks.

Seemingly the government is pushing forward it’s agenda to have HPPs built by putting dams along the river but this time decreasing them in size.   

For almost a decade various groups have fought against Albanian government’s plan to build 8 dams  along the river, threatening it’s unique wildlife recognized by scientists and environmental experts. The plan was condemned by many, including film actor Leonardo DiCaprio. Several documentaries helped increase the awareness of Europe’s Blue Heart, specifically One for the River: The Vjosa Story and The Undamaged by LeeWay Collective.  

While governments in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina seem to be taking the threat of HPPs seriously, in Albania it appears to be little other than lip service. This is perhaps due to the intertwined private interests and vast sums of money involved. Either way, time is running out and local residents fear the worst when it comes to preserving the Blue Heart and the last remaining wild rivers on the continent.