Dam Tsunami in Balkans Threatens the “Blue Heart of Europe”

Ulrich Eichelmann
Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Balkans region of Southern Europe is famous for its Mediterranean beaches, past wars and, for those in the know, Slivovitz and Ćevapi – the plum schnapps and the traditional meat dish of the region. However, the true treasure of this area is only known to very few insiders: its rivers. 

Nowhere else on the continent can one find such a tremendous number and variety of pristine and near-natural rivers as in the area between Slovenia and Albania: wild rivers with extensive gravel banks, crystal clear streams, intact alluvial forests, deep gorges, spectacular waterfalls, and even karstic underground rivers which mysteriously flood the surface during extreme rainfall and snow melt. The Blue Heart of Europe beats in the Balkans.

In preparation for a campaign to protect this treasure, two NGOs – Riverwatch (based in Vienna/Austria) and EuroNatur (Germany) – assessed about 35,000 river kilometers on the Balkan Peninsula. The hydromorphology of the rivers as well as the number of projected hydropower plants larger than 1 MW were examined. In addition, we commissioned a survey of threatened fish and mollusc species in the region. 

The results were impressive: 30% of the 35,000 kilometers assessed are in very good and another 50% are in a good or satisfying morphological condition. This is outstanding, and without par in Europe.

 The impressive condition of these rivers is reflected in the enormous biodiversity they support: 69 fish species are endemic to the Balkans (they live only here and nowhere else in the world), including several endangered trout species such as the Softmouth trout. 28% of all the threatened fish species in Europe live in rivers of the Balkan Peninsula. In other words: more than every fourth endangered fish species in Europe is  “Balkanese.” Even more impressive is the importance of these rivers for mollusc species: 151 endangered mussels and snails can be found in the region’s freshwater systems, corresponding to over 40% of all red listed mollusc species in Europe. The Balkan constitutes one of the most important  aquatic biodiversity hotspots in Europe. 

However, the Blue Heart of Europe is at risk of a heart attack. More than 570 hydropower plants are projected to be built in coming years – commonly with support of businesses from inside the European Union and loans from international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Not even the most striking and valuable river stretches – even if located inside a national park – are to be spared.

Taking into account all the small-scale projects, virtually no river will remain unharmed. Even fairly small states such as Albania and Macedonia have announced plans to construct over 400 small-scale hydropower plants each. In sum, the Balkan Rivers face a spate of construction of several thousand new dams. 

This would mean the end for most riverine species. According to Dr. Jörg Freyhof, author of the Balkan fish assessment and European Chair of the IUCN SSC Fish Specialist Group, about 75% of all the threatened fish species (among them the globally endangered Danube Salmon) and 70% of the threatened molluscs of this region are highly vulnerable to dam construction and would not survive in the long run. But again: hardly anyone knows about it.

On the positive side, the data we gathered enables us to literally visualize the extent of the threat. It shows that the enormous number of projects constitutes a massive attack on the Balkan Rivers and its species as a whole. 

It is a problem on a European – or even global – scale. In the words of John Zablocki, a member of the Science Team at Trout Unlimited: "In my opinion, this is probably the single most important issue in the world right now for native trout and healthy rivers.” 

“Save the Blue Heart of Europe” Campaign 

In order to avoid the worst damage and initiate a better future for the Balkan rivers, EuroNatur and Riverwatch recently started the “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” campaign. In cooperation with local partners, we hope to achieve the following goals by the end of 2016:

  • Raise public awareness (especially in the EU) about the value of and threats to the Balkan Rivers,
  • Stop dam projects in three key areas (Vjosa River in Albania, the Mavrovo National Park in Macedonia, and the Sava River between Croatia and Serbia),
  • Initiate the development of a spatial master plan with no-go areas for dam construction for all Balkan rivers, and
  • Increase knowledge about Balkan fish species, especially of Danube Salmon.

The preservation of the Balkan Rivers will be a plodding undertaking – a marathon with several intermittent sprints. We will need passion advocates, and engaged citizenry and a lot of support. But it is worth the kind of effort it will take, because we still have a chance to save the Blue Heart of Europe. 

Ulrich Eichelmann is the CEO of Riverwatch and a coordinator of Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign

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