The Balkan Rivers: Save the Blue Heart of Europe
For many years it has been the secret knowledge of “insiders” – riverine communities, a few NGO representatives, fly fishers, kayakists: the Blue Heart of Europe beats on the Balkan Peninsula. Nowhere else on the continent can one find such a tremendous number and variety of pristine, wild rivers, crystal clear streams, extensive gravel banks, untouched alluvial forests, deep gorges, spectacular waterfalls, and even karstic underground rivers which mysteriously flood the surface during extreme rain fall and snow melt in autumn and spring. What’s more, these rivers are one of the most important hotspots for European biodiversity, especially fish and molluscs, hosting many threatened as well as endemic species. Rare vegetation communities and water depended fauna can be found not only in these very rivers, but also in adjacent alluvial habitats.
However, this unique European treasure is threatened. The rivers of the Balkans are to be dammed on a large scale. 2,683 hydropower plants (including small plants with a capacity of 0-1 MW) are projected to be built in the next few years – commonly with support of businesses and loans from inside the European Union and beyond. Not even the most striking and valuable river stretches – even if located inside a national park – are to be spared. The Blue Heart of Europe is at risk of a heart attack.
This whole story is relatively unknown to the public and even to many experts in the fields of ecology and nature conservation. Through our international campaign we want to change this situation.
In preparation for this campaign, the hydromorphology (the structural intactness of the river) of about 35,000 river kilometers on the Balkan Peninsula has been assessed (find the study here - find more details and other studies in the study section of this website). The results were impressive: 30% of the Balkan rivers are in a pristine state; another 50% are in a good condition or only moderately modified. In other words, almost 80% of 35,000 examined river kilometers are in a very good, good or acceptable morphological condition. On a hydromorphology map, the status quo of the Balkan rivers looks like this:
EU member countries aim to achieve a similar hydromorphological condition for the rest of Europe's rivers in future years through the Water Framework Directive. However, currently, the picture in the rest of Europe is reversed. See below the hydromorphological map of Germany for comparison - a rather typical river situation of European rivers, which results from river regulation, dam construction, navigation, and other hydro-engineering modifications.
In order to understand the importance of the Balkan rivers for European biodiversity, we studied the variety of fish and mollusc species in this region in 2011 (find the study here). Again we were surprised, this time by the sheer number of endangered and endemic species in the region: 69 fish species are endemic to the Balkans and over 40% of all endangered freshwater mollusc species (mussels and snails) of Europe live here – probably making this region the most important freshwater hotspot in Europe.
And this might not even be the whole story: it seems likely that undiscovered species roam the Balkan waters. Just recently a new caddy fly species was discovered.
Furthermore, the region is believed to provide habitat to an exceptional fish species: the Danube Salmon (Hucho hucho). Once wide-spread across the Danube basin, the center of the remaining population of this species is concentrated in only a few rivers of the Danube river basin which are now threatened by dam construction. But scientific knowledge was limited. Within the context of the campaign we increased research about the Danube Salmon’s distribution in order to make sound assumptions about the impact of planned dams on its remaining population. The study conducted by 18 scientists from 7 countries clearly showed, that the Balkan rivers constitute the last big hot spot for this species. Self-sustaining populations of Huchen were found in 43 rivers with a total length of 1,842 kilometres. Find the study and related downloads here.
However, this enormous biodiversity is threatened. About 75% of all the threatened fish species and 70% of the threatened molluscs in Europe are highly vulnerable to dam construction.
Find photos here: Gallery "Biodiversity Hotspot"
According to our survey, 2,683 hydropower plants (also including small hydropower plants (SHPP) with a capacity of 0-1MW) are projected to be built across the project region in the next years. This is how it would look like on a map:
Many countries plan excessive damming of all their rivers. After already having completed many new dams, Macedonia intends to construct another 203 dams (of which 4 are under construction) while Albania plans to build another 337 hydropower plants (with 24 already under construction). The gold rush atmosphere that has emerged in the hydropower sector in recent years needs to be significantly revised if we want to preserve our European riverine heritage in the future.
We want to save the unique rivers of the Balkans by preserving the most valuable streams and stretches with regard to ecology and biodiversity. They shall be preserved for the benefit of nature, biodiversity, and of the people for whom these rivers have a deep symbolic and cultural meaning, as well as for those coming from farer distance seeking to experience the last untouched rivers in Europe. We believe that the economic future of the Balkan countries can be more sustainably stimulated by conserving their natural treasures and keeping their potential for sustainable socio-economic development available for future generations.
Nevertheless the Balkan countries need additional sources of energy and the utilisation of their natural resources (including rivers) for this purpose seems logical. The aim of this campaign therefore cannot be to ban hydropower from the region altogether; however, hydropower development needs to follow a spatial planning approach respecting nature conservation aspects. A plan is needed which provides sound information on where dams are acceptable with respect to the environmental cost-benefit balance and where the preservation of nature must take precedence. Decision makers need a masterplan defining no-go areas for hydropower investment for all Balkan rivers. Up to now, dams are planned and already being constructed almost everywhere in the Balkan rivers network. We are experiencing a gold rush atmosphere in the hydropower sector that threatens to destroy the Blue Heart of Europe, its diversity and uniqueness.
In our campaign, we concentrate on three key areas that are particularly valuable: the Vjosa River in Albania, the Mavrovo National Park in Macedonia, and the Sava River in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia. Needless to say, all of them are threatened by large dam projects.
Our goals for the next 3 years are:
- to raise public awareness about Balkan Rivers, their ecological values and vulnerability
- to stop dam projects in the 3 key areas
- to coordinate the development of a masterplan with no-go areas for dam construction for all Balkan rivers
- to improve knowledge about the biodiversity of those rivers playing a crucial role in terms of biological connectivity and endemism in the region.
Save the Blue Heart of Europe!