The Vjosa River flows 270 kilometers without barriers from the Pindus Mountains to the Adriatic Sea. It’s one of many rivers in the Balkans that are under threat by a tidal wave of more than 2,800 new hydropower dam projects. In March 2018, Patagonia joined grassroots groups and regional community activists in Save the Blue Heart of Europe, a campaign aimed at averting new dams and honoring the real heroes in the Balkans. A little over a year later, we want to celebrate the progress local activists have achieved to protect wild rivers.
“When I first met the Patagonia Europe team in 2016, we discussed how Patagonia could help us save the Balkan rivers. I remember saying we needed to make the rivers world-famous. Today, I couldn´t be happier about the result,” says Ulrich Eichelmann, CEO of Riverwatch.
As we worked to raise awareness worldwide about Balkan rivers, we rallied in front of government buildings in Albania, screened our film Blue Heart: the Fight for Europe’s Last Wild Rivers on an abandoned dam in Bosnia, and collected more than 120,000 signatures for a petition demanding public banks immediately stop funding projects that will damage wild rivers, while also increasing support for energy efficiency and truly clean renewable energy.
Now, one year later, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, one of the big financial stakeholders in the dams, finally adopted stricter requests for transparency for loans granted for renewable energy projects, specifically for small hydropower plants, in the Balkans.
“The commercial banks that invest in the dams directly have been receiving EBRD funding without proper oversight from the EBRD itself. Now that they need to provide all the paperwork in advance, we can expect that fewer dams will be approved. NGOs and local communities will also be able to object to any dams before construction starts,” says Igor Vejnovic, the hydropower coordinator for Bankwatch.
Beyond banks, local communities, too, are celebrating good news for the protection of wild rivers. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, thanks to the women-led blockade organized by the villagers of Kruščica, plans for two hydropower plants have been revoked.
The village protesters gathered to celebrate the news in the same tent that kept them dry during the 16-month-long blockade across the river. “We cried from happiness,” said Maida Bilal, one of the women of Kruščica. “We are still waiting for the canceling of the concession agreement. We won the battle, but not the war,” said Tahira Tibold, a fellow protester.
In Fojnica, the village across the hill, permits for five hydropower plants have now expired and will not be renewed. The community there spent 10 years campaigning against the dams that would have blocked the free-flowing river, a key water source for all surrounding villages.
This momentum has echoed across Europe. Last December, the European Parliament passed a resolution highlighting the environmental risks of small hydropower dams and pointing out that they are not in line with the European Union’s own environmental standards. The resolution urges banks to review their support for hydropower projects; a sign that European institutions are starting to reconsider their support for hydropower as an alternative to fossil fuels.
In addition, the Council of Europe’s environmental watchdog (the Bern Convention—Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats) called on the Albanian government to halt the hydro dams on the Vjosa River and recommended that the issue be examined by a group of experts to develop principles for hydropower plants in protected areas. This international pressure brings hope for people working to stop dams in Albania and create Europe’s first wild river national park instead.
Across the border, the Poçem dam in Albania is under legal review thanks to the Save the Blue Heart coalition. In August, the Albanian government announced the first large-scale solar plant to be built with the help of a loan from the EBRD.
Together with grassroots groups and NGOs, we are urging national governments and the EU to tighten environmental and energy laws. A recent study by Riverwatch and EuroNatur found that almost 38,000 miles (61,000 kilometers) of rivers in the Balkans are of high ecological quality and should be designated as no-go zones for hydropower expansion. Instead, the study suggests, planned hydro projects could easily be substituted with renewable energy developments, particularly solar and wind.
We’ll continue to put pressure on banks such as the EBRD to apply more stringent rules for hydropower projects and to increase funding for truly green renewable energy sources.
As we’re celebrating these victories and the heroes who made them happen, many wild rivers are still under threat. Thanks to tireless groups working nonstop on the ground, there is hope that some of the most precious wild places will stay protected.
Our film, Blue Heart, is now available to watch online for the first time since its release. Watch the film and learn more about the problems with hydropower and the proposed dams in the Balkans on patagonia.com/blueheart.