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Stop the Balkans dam craze

A group of NGOs is ramping up efforts to protect some of Europe’s last pristine rivers.

Riverwatch, EuroNatur and local Balkan NGOs are among those behind ‘Save the Blue Heart of Europe’, a campaign to preserve the Balkans’ spectacular untouched rivers, now threatened by plans to build hundreds of hydropower plants.

‘We have evidence of about 3,000 dam projects to start in the next few years between Slovenia and Greece – with 180 already under way,’ says Ulrich Eichelmann, CEO of Riverwatch. ‘We call it the “dam tsunami”.’

Campaigners fear the dams would leave hardly any river unaffected, threatening the area’s biodiversity – Balkan rivers host 69 unique fish species – and human communities, leaving thousands without access to water.

Some core funding comes from international financial institutions, including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, World Bank Group, and other western European banks including Italy’s Unicredit and Austria’s Erste Bank.

‘Many of the plants they have financed would never be allowed in their home countries,’ says Eichelmann.

Hydropower is heavily subsidized because it is regarded as green but it’s ‘probably the worst energy source’ for nature, according to Eichelmann. ‘It’s so bad because it destroys a river entirely: its chemical balance, temperature, ability for self-purification – at the dam site but also up- and downstream.’

Gabriel Schwaderer, Executive Director of EuroNatur, says the good news is that it’s not too late. ‘Over a thousand planned hydropower plants have no financing yet, so there is still much that can be done to save the Balkans’ rivers,’ he says.

The group has helped to stop one dam in Albania and several in Macedonia. In May 2018, the campaign will release an ‘Eco-Masterplan’ featuring no-go zones for hydropower and call on financial institutions to endorse it.

Alessio Perrone

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