Tuesday

26th Mar 2019

Opinion

Europe's last wild rivers under threat at Balkans summit

  • Multilateral development banks have supported no fewer than 82 hydropower projects across southeast Europe, including in protected areas (Photo: Bankwatch.com)

Connectivity across the Western Balkans will top the agenda of the EU-Western Balkans summit held this week in Sofia under the auspices of the Bulgarian presidency.

To be sure, this is exactly what is missing when it comes to planning electricity production and transmission in the region.

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While most of the electricity systems are physically well-connected, according to research commissioned by the European Commission "the regional long-term transmission network development planning is practically the sum of individual national long-term network development plans, with minor coordination for cross-border transmission lines."

The Western Balkans countries develop their energy systems without taking into account the potential of transboundary connectivity to balance their national grids, allow the introduction of more intermittent renewables and decrease overall demand.

The countries are playing a zero-sum game they are bound to lose.

Bankwatch research shows that the desire of Balkan countries to become strong electricity exporters creates the risk of stranded assets in the form of planned power plants.

This outdated belief that any electricity generated will automatically find a market facilitates unsustainable energy plans, including thousands of planned hydropower plants in the region, jeopardising another important Balkan asset: its rivers.

The region is one of the world's main freshwater biodiversity hotspots, with hundreds of kilometres of pristine, unmodified waterways, hosting some of most rare fish species in Europe.

And it is a region where a rising force of communities and civil society oppose the thousands of dams that, if plans go through, will irreversibly damage the substantial natural capital that the region's rivers represent.

While the EU has tried to facilitate connectivity and environmental sustainability within the region, its success is patchy, particularly with the latter.

Too often lists of largely unsustainable priority infrastructure projects such as motorways and gas pipelines are prioritised for EU support, instead of improving, adopting and enforcing environmental legislation.

The Commission has been leading a process to devise a Regional Strategy for Sustainable Hydropower, with the goal of promoting both connectivity and sustainability in parallel, but the final result is still to be seen.

Connectivity without sustainability would be a heavy blow that the region cannot afford, either financially or in terms of loss of resources such as water for irrigation, drinking and recreation.

For these reasons, a campaign has been launched together with the outdoor brand Patagonia to head off one of the core drivers behind the hydropower tsunami: the money available for such projects.

Bio-diversity hotspot

According to Bankwatch, multilateral development banks including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Investment Bank and the World Bank Group have supported 82 hydropower plants across southeast Europe with €727m.

These include 37 plants in protected areas and internationally recognised areas of high biodiversity value such as Important Bird Areas.

The campaign's petition, which has already garnered tens of thousands of signatories, aims precisely at these banks that are seen as trendsetters for other financial institutions, asking them to lead the way of divestment from the sector in the region.

While these financiers are bankrolling their plans, Western Balkans' governments also need to take responsibility and start planning their energy sectors to move swiftly towards more efficient use of energy, and a more diverse renewable energy base, instead of just carrying forward projects which have been on the drawing board for decades.

They also need to focus on rehabilitating their ageing hydropower fleet and making sure that new infrastructure is planned and built in line with the law, which is rarely the case at the moment.

Connectivity without sustainability is a real danger and Western Balkans governments, the EU and public banks should all take part in resolving this complex puzzle. They, as well as the public, have the key responsibility to make sure that the Balkans' natural capital is not further destroyed for the sake of unrealistic energy production ambitions.

Igor Vejnovic is hydropower policy officer at Bankwatch, a network of grassroots, environmental and human rights groups in central and eastern Europe.

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