Rights for Doljanka River in the Blue Heart of Europe

 Figure 1 Source: Doljanka River by Anes Podic

Figure 1 Source: Doljanka River by Anes Podic

The Bosnia River Action Network Advocacy (BRANA) in Bosnia and Herzegovina, seeks recognition of rights for the beautiful Doljanka River, one of the few wild rivers left in Europe which is now being threatened by a hydropower plant. Members include Earth Law Center, Eko akcija (“eco action”) and Gotusa.

Primer on the Balkans

The Balkan Peninsula, or Balkans, is the historic and geographic name of southeastern Europe. The Balkans lay south of the rivers Save, Drava, and Danube and is surrounded by the Adriatic and Ionian Seas in the west, the Mediterranean Sea in the south and the Aegean, Marmara, and Black Seas in the east.

The countries that make up the Balkans today include Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, rump Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), and Bosnia Herzegovina (referred to as Bosnia throughout this text). 

 Figure 2 By NordNordWest [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 2 By NordNordWest [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Blue Heart of Europe

The blue heart of Europe refers to the wild rivers that still exist, primarily in the Balkans. Over 80 percent of these vital lifelines have good or even very good ecological status.  By comparison, only 10 percent of Germany's rivers are still classified as near-natural, whereas 60 percent are heavily regulated.

Forty percent of Europe's endangered species of freshwater molluscs (bivalves and snails) live in the rivers and lakes of the Balkan peninsula. In addition to this, the region has the distinction of having a high density of endemic fish species; there are 69 fish species that occur only in the Balkan rivers and nowhere else in the world.

Produced by the firm Patagonia, a new documentary Blue Heart highlights how 3,000 hydropower plants planned across the Balkans will destroy the last wild rivers in Europe. Dams destroy the natural ecosystems of a river. The Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign is getting a lot of traction worldwide and building momentum to save the wild rivers of the Balkans.  EcoAlbania won its first court battle against one of the largest approved dam projects along the Vjosa near the town of Poçem. Local residents are fighting back in other parts of the Balkans too.

Three quarters of the rivers in the Balkans are so ecologically valuable that they should be completely off limits for hydropower development, according to a recent assessment published by Riverwatch and Euro Natur.

Destruction of the Doljanka River

The power station scheduled for Doljanka is one of around 250 hydroelectric projects that have been approved or are under construction across Bosnia.

Financed by the former NBA Player Mirza Teletović, construction and development teams started destroying the river banks in order to lay 2 meter diameter pipes at a pace of 20-30 meters a day, according to Anes Podic, of Eko Akcija (Eco Action) in Bosnia. They have obtained an environmental permit based on flawed impact studies.

''This is just the latest example - we now see and hear almost weekly of the Balkans wild rivers being destroyed by rampant private businesses, both local and EU-based, with the help of local political elite, financed by Austrian, German and Russian banks. In this light, it may be disconcerting to some but is in fact very indicative that neither the EU nor the World Bank have even mentioned environmental problems in their latest strategy for the Western Balkans power and energy strategies. While the EU may not care, the local communities do: they have nothing to gain and a lot to lose from these projects,'' says Podic.

The sacrifice of the river isn’t even worth it. Most of the small hydro plants in the region produce no more than 1 megawatt (MW) each — roughly enough to power 750 homes, but environmentalists say they disrupt fish migration routes and pose a threat to dozens of species, including the Danube Salmon and Balkan Lynx.

“In a world in which the climate is changing, the value of hydro becomes more uncertain,” says Peter Gleick of the Oakland, California–based Pacific Institute. “We know that one of the worst impacts of climate change will be impacts on water—on droughts, on floods, on demand [via increased evaporation].”

Eco-Tourism

With almost a decade of ethnic conflict now fading into memory, the Balkans are rebuilding their economies on tourism, not only promoting their rich history but also marketing to eco-tourists seeking wilderness adventures such as hiking, kayaking, white-water rafting and caving.

 Figure 3 Henrik søvang [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 3 Henrik søvang [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ecotourism means responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people. Growing interest in fly fishing in Bosnia indicates the potential for ecotourism as a way to align economic growth with protecting natural ecosystems.

The women of Bosnia have united to stand against the rash of dam-building, defending Bosnia-Herzegovina’s freshwater resources and areas of rich natural biodiversity.

Locals are well aware of this. “Ninety-five percent of villagers in the area where Doljanka flows have signed a petition against the hydro plants, which would destroy local community’s plans to develop fly-fishing and sport fishing,” the Coalition for the protection of rivers in Bosnia, the NGO, said in a statement.

Call to Action to Defend Doljanka

At the moment, five excavators are destroying the river flow of Doljanka at the beginning of the season of the mulching of the endemic trout “glavatica”.  This type of hydropower plant does not use dams, but huge pipes inserted below the river bed, and this is planned for over three kilometers of the river.  The installation of these pipes completely and irretrievably destroys all life in the river.

The local community was not adequately involved in the process of obtaining a "permit", nor did a proper ecological study took place. The Environmental Impact Assessment for Doljanka scarcely mentions the river and claims that there will be “no negative ecological impacts on the river”. This document is an appeal to urgently stop the irreversible destruction of the Doljanka River and its complete ecosystem, which is of great importance for the municipalities of Jablanica and Neretva, one of the most beautiful and biodiverse European rivers (Doljanka is its right tributary).

Get involved today

More about partner organizations 

Eko akcija, based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, is working on pressing environmental problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina such as protection of its rich biodiversity, water supplies, air pollution, garbage disposal thru grassroots campaigns. They are founded by Green Visions who pioneered eco-tourism movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Gotusa are a grassroots community organizer from Fojnica and have been instrumental in the fight so far.

Earth Law Center works to transform the law to recognize and protect nature’s inherent rights to exist, thrive and evolve. This includes advancing the inherent rights of rivers through initiatives with local partners to secure rights recognition. 

ELC’s Universal Declaration of Rights of Rivers (available in English, Spanish and French) lays out the range of rights to protect and restore river ecosystem health, which can serve as input into local legislation. Dams, in particular, violate a river’s right to flow.

The Doljanka River is ELC’s second initiative in the Balkans, along with a bid to create a pesticide free zone in Serbia to save the endangered white-tailed eagle, in partnership with Earth Thrive.