Small hydropower plants: is there an alternative?

In the last few years, small hydropower plants have been the most popular way of obtaining energy from water sources. At the same time they represent a popular way for investors to make money and also the reason for many protests happening around the world, but most importantly for us in the region. Even though it’s widely believed that small hydropower plants don’t pollute and are almost an ideal mechanism for obtaining the electricity, the things that environmental activists are warning us about are the negative consequences of small hydropower plants. Although they only carry water through pipes and  return it to its water course  – by that very act they kill the living world. Numerous groups of citizens who gathered to defend local rivers rebelled against this building of small hydropower plants, and some of them succeeded in their goals. During this time, experts are devising solutions for this environmental problem.

Defense of Stara Planina (Serbia)

Photo: Nemanja Jovanović, Facebook: Odbranimo reke Stare Planine

The spatial plan of the municipality of Pirot from 2011 foresees the construction of 58 small hydropower plants. However, many of those small hydropower plants are planned in the first and second protection zones, where construction is not allowed. The fight against their construction in the span of several years included numerous protests, conflicts with investors, political struggle, but ended successfully thanks to the great desire to defend the rivers – the source of life.

At the beginning of 2018, professor and then dean of the Faculty of Forestry, Ratko Ristić, addressed the public in an open letter in which he stated his position on the inadmissibility of the conceptual project for the construction of the small hydropower plant „Pakleštica“ on the Visočica River. It was stated, among other things, that the construction of small hydropower plant „Pakleštica“ was planned to be in a nature park, in second zone of protection and it would be the largest of all planned small hydropower plants, and with its construction the river downstream from the village of Rsovci would be pushed into a 2 km long pipe, through which the water would flow, that way the water would bypass Vladika’s plates, the unofficially most beautiful river canyon in Serbia.

 It was also said in the letter,  that the investors are mostly private companies that see an interest in the fact that the produced electricity is delivered to Elektroprivreda Srbije, which pays the producers a preferential price of 10.6 to 13.93 euro cents per kilowatt-hour of energy produced, and all of this ends up going at the expense of citizens, because bills for consumed electricity in every household in Serbia are burdened with 0.093 dinars per consumed kilowatt-hour. By doing so, interest groups and individuals are achieving enormous monetary benefits, causing great ecological damage in protected natural areas, and all of this is paid for by the citizens of Serbia.

What is clear to everyone is that the tourist potential of Stara Planina disappears with every small hydropower plant that is built, because no tourist is interested in seeing the pipes, especially not in an area that was untouched before that. However, this whole project is a bigger problem for the residents of this area. Because of this, they protested for several years, both in their villages and in Pirot, and the protests also reached the capital, where they were organized several times and gathered tens of thousands of citizens. Because of the rebellion of the locals, the places that the citizens of Serbia and the region have heard about  are Rakita, Temska, Topli Do…

The Rakita river flows in Rakita. However, when the plan for a small hydroelectric power plant appeared, which would threaten the protected species of brown trout and crayfish, the locals rose up against its construction. Since the beginning of the construction of small hydropower plant, in July of 2017, several protests have been organized, as well as attempts to block the construction site. Since Januaryof 2019, the investor has been prohibited from carrying out work and was ordered to rehabilitate the site and return it to its previous state, also the activists of the „Defend the Rivers of Stara Planina“ movement in August of 2020 broke through a pipe from the Rakita River, thereby disabling the operation of the small hydro.

Photo: Milan Simonović, Facebook: Odbranimo reke Stare Planine

In Temska, which is the largest village in the Pirot District and the center of Stara Planina, in August of 2018, an action called Prayer for the Toplodol River took place. That river, as the name suggests, flows through Topli Do, a village that became known for the fiercest fights between the locals and those who want to build small hydros. In that village, which belongs to the National Park, on February 25 of 2019, the locals started organizing round-the-clock watches to prevent the investor from entering the village and starting work on the construction of a small hydropower plant. The musician Manu Chao, who visited Topli Do in 2019, joined them and, among other things, played several songs in front of the village store, which was covered by the local media. After the conflict in October of 2019, investor Dragan Josić declared that he would no longer set foot in Pirot, nor Topli Do. It was, as activists see it, a great victory.

Južne vesti repoerted that in September of 2019, the Assembly of the City of Pirot adopted a decision to remove all locations for small hydros from the Spatial Plan of the City. All councilors, both opposition and government, voted for it, and the Assembly made a decision to submit a request to the Government of Serbia and competent ministries for a moratorium on the construction of small hydropower plants on the territory of the Stara Planina Nature Park. In July of 2020, the draft of the new spatial plan of the City of Pirot was presented, which does not point out the construction of small hydropower plants on the territory of the Nature Park and the tourist region of Stara planina. The new spatial plan is the result of a three-year struggle by the residents of numerous villages who, through protests, roadblocks and conflicts with investors, managed to stand in the way of the construction of the small hydros.

„We are satisfied because we have defended the rivers of Stara planina, but there is a certain amount of concern because the possibility of building a small hydro on the Nišava river downstream from Pirot has been left open. For this reason, our struggle doesn’t stop. We will monitor every attempt to build a power plant in Nišava as well, we will consult experts and see what we should do, because it could really bring great environmental damage“, said Dragan Jonić from the association „Defend the rivers of Stara Planina“.

Aleksandar Jovanović Ćuta also commented on the deletion of about fifty small hydros, as foreseen by the cadastre from 1987. „After two years of politicians’ refusal to solve the problem and ban the construction of 58 small hydros in the protected area, avoiding any conversation with us, they finally prevented all the rivers of Stara Planina from disappearing. If they hadn’t done that, the locals would’ve had to move out, because there would be no more water. That’s how we would get ecological refugees“.

He also added: „The fight continues, because we have to defend the Rakita River, which belongs to the municipality of Babušnica, because the investor ignores the decision on the prohibition of works.“

The fight for the rivers of Bare Kraljske (Montenegro)

Photo: Sačuvajmo rijeke Crne Gore, Facebook

In Montenegro, in 2008, the company „Dekar“ started a project on the Crni Potok-Čestogaz watercourse. That project started quietly then nothing happened for the next 12 years. And then, in 2020, the works begin. When none of the locals expected, that someone would start pushing their rivers into the pipes, work began for which there were no documents nor permits to carry it out. Soon, the locals organized themselves and on July 24, the local community of Bare Kraljske  submitted an initiative to stop the planned construction of the small hydropower plant. More than 200 citizens signed the petition that was submitted with the initiative, reported Radio-television of Montenegro.

And what exactly is the problem? According to the announcement of the Center for Civic Education (CCE), the rivers Čestogaz, Ljubaštica and Crnja, which the locals have used for decades for drinking, watering domestic animals, as well as for flooding their properties, would be pushed into the pipes, which would threaten their survival in the area. The additional problem and what should be an obstacle is that this is planned on the territory of the Komovi Regional Park, and these streams are the first source tributaries of the Tara River, which is under UNESCO protection. Also, in the vicinity of the planned small hydro on the Čestogaz and Ljubaštica rivers, less than 100 meters away, is a village cemetery that may be at risk.

In its announcements, the CCE informed the public about the frauds that took place during the summer months near Bare Kraljske. They say that the water inspector was obliged to consider the initiative of the CCE to start the inspection supervision procedure and inform the CCE about it – which he didn’t do. The inspection was carried out at the water catchment of the Čestogaz river, where there were no workers from the company performing the work due to the protests of the locals. But, as they say, by some „miracle“ the executive director of that company found himself at that place when this inspector was conducting an inspection.

„The fact that the inspector did not inform CCE, as the requester, about the planned supervision, nor the president of the Municipal Council of Bare Kraljske, so that the residents could attend and point out the violations of the requested supervision, and that he invited the investor as the subject of supervision to the site reduced the effectiveness of this supervision which violated the Law on Inspection Supervision“, the announcement reads.

They also state that the record, which was submitted to the Ministry of Economy, stated that the investor is carrying out works in accordance with the approved revised projects in the third phase, and the third phase includes the construction of facilities and plants of the small hydro and obtaining a water and use permit, as well as a production license for electric energy. It is indisputable that the works started only in mid-July of 2020, so it’s unclear how the inspector could state the construction three years earlier. A suspicion was also stated that the inspector didn’t even go to the field on the dates written in the record, because the locals were on duty day and night at the construction site and could see if anyone passes by.

In the following period, the locals held numerous protests, which were sometimes attended by politicians from opposition parties, as well as those who won the 2020 elections. Demonstrators received various offers, compromise ideas, but they rejected them all. Vijesti reported that the locals managed to drive the workers away from the construction site on several occasions, and in May of 2021, the works were temporarily prohibited.

From the protests, which they organized on an almost weekly basis, the locals told the authorities that the temporary ban was not enough, that it was necessary to terminate the contracts with the investors, and wondered how the state had no power to do it after several years of demands.

In December of 2021, the Government of Montenegro accepts the proposal of the Ministry of Capital Investments on the termination of the Concession Agreement for the construction of small hydro „Crnja“, small hydro „Ljubaštica“ and small hydro“Crni potok“. It was a victory for all citizens and organizations that fought together to protect the rivers and the villages that surround them. Victory over all pressures – political, judicial, economic, but the victory of people who defended their water, houses, people day and night.

Photo: Sačuvajmo rijeke Crne Gore, Facebook

In June of 2022, the removal of pipes intended for the construction of a small hydropower plant from the bed of the Čestogaz stream began. This way, the victory of the inhabitants of that village, who have been continuously protesting, since July of 2020,  against the construction of a small hydro on the watercourses below Koma, was confirmed.

„After two years of fighting against the construction of small hydro, which was accompanied by illegality, corruption and often the arrogance of privileged individuals and associated interest groups, we finally saw the extraction of the pipe from Čestogaz, the river that they thought they would take from us, despite all legal regulations and contractual obligations“ , Milovan Labović, then the president of the Municipality of Bare Kraljske, wrote on his Facebook profile.

The Citizens’ Initiative Save the Rivers of Montenegro announced: „After two years of hard struggle by the locals for the rivers of Potkomovlje (45 protests, a dozen court cases, months of being on call, countless emergencies, letters and requests to the authorities…) justice won, and the proud concessionaire and the destroyer of our nature is finally pulling the plug. The rivers of Bare Kraljske will flow freely. Plant and animal life, as well as our water – the most important resource is preserved in Bare Kraljske for future generations“. Six days after the pipe removal began, it was finished. There, the attempt to hijack the river was put to an end and an example was given of how to fight for nature, against those who would make money from its disappearance.

How the beauties of the Bun channels have been preserved (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Photo: Majski cvijet, Facebook

The Bun channels are a natural phenomenon on the Neretva River. They are located near Buna, south of Mostar. It’s a narrow channel through which the Neretva flows, and its left tributary, the Buna, flows into it over a travertine barrier. In 1970, the Bun channels were declared a part of nature by the Institute for the Protection of Natural Monuments of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and during the eighties, it was a place for kayaking competitions, because on that site nature had built what is usually built artificially in order to make path as demanding as possible. In November of 2015, permits were issued for two small hydropower plants – Buna 1 and Buna 2. Soon, non-governmental organizations started a lawsuit in court.

Oliver Arapović, president of the association „May Flower“, described how the project of these two small hydros looks like, in an interview for the portal „On one side, the construction of 650 meters of concrete walls is planned. Concreting is planned and the entire Buna wouldn’t flow into the canal, so the canal would remain almost dry in the summer, and the water would be diverted to Cvetko Liman in Neretva. Further on the other side under the railway tunnel, 580 meters, another channel will lead the water to the engine rooms and there it will again flow into the Neretva. The entire bed of the Neretva is protected, so the mouth of the Buna River is a nature monument of the second category, and this area is a natural spawning and breeding ground for endemic fish species and the main migration channel for soft-mouth trout entering the Buna River. If the small hydros were to be built, soft-mouth trout and six other critically endangered fish species wouldn’t be able to migrate to their native Buna and spawn there,“.

Over the years, a lot of things have happened that’ve raised hopes among both activists and investors. Ever since the plan for the construction of two small hydros became known, the public learned about the rejection of the request for construction, then the return of the investors, then the deletion of hydropower plants from spatial plans and many other events that brought joy, but also anger. Even a public hearing was scheduled, which was closed to the public – that’s how many obstacles the activists had. From the one that was scheduled for May 5th of 2022, the public was excluded because „the representative of the informal group of citizens „Stop the construction of small hydro on Buna“ invited „all the citizens of Mostar“ to the discussion, and it’s physically impossible for the discussion to take place in such conditions“. But there was no lack of support. They received support from various sides, there were musicians like Darko Rundek and the Dubioza kolektiv, but also world stars like Leonardo DiCaprio.

Photo: Majski cvijet, Facebook

The public discussions, which the public could actually attend, showed the unity of the citizens in their opposition to the construction of the small hydros and their desire to defend the Bunski channels. At the end of April of 2022, the citizens of Buna started signing a petition, for which they collected about 2000 signatures. Previously, a similar petition was launched by the Ecological Association „May Flower“, which then collected over 5,000 signatures. The citizens also organized themselves and on several occasions cleaned the Bun canals of garbage that unscrupulous fellow citizens have thrown into this natural gem.

After the citizen’s initiative by which the informal group of citizens „Stop the construction of small hydros on Buna“ requested the amendment of the Spatial Plan of the City of Mostar or the amendment of the Regulatory Plan of the area, without waiting for the adoption of the new Spatial Plan – at the session of the City Council of the City of Mostar in June of 2022, a decision was adopted on joining the drafting of amendments to the Spatial Plan of Mostar. Five months later, in November, at the session of the City Council with 25 votes ‘for’, eight abstentions and no votes ‘against’, the City Council of the City of Mostar adopted the Decision on Adoption and Implementation of Amendments and Supplements to the Spatial Plan of the Municipality of Mostar.

The “May Flower” association reacted to this news:

„We welcome this decision of the councilors of Mostar, but we also note that dozens of questionable items have been ‘slipped in’ through the amendments in question, where there is a justified suspicion that certain tycoons were favored. We are only one step away from the final salvation of the Bunski canals – the termination of the concession contract, so we once again call on Prime Minister Nevenko Herceg and department minister Donko Jović to finally start the process of terminating the contract in question,“ , as reported by the Bljesak

This is not the absolute end, but it’s a very good sign that the epilogue will be positive for the activists and the Buna river.

Civic activism is one of the solutions, and what are the alternatives to small hydropower plants?

Photo: Milan Simonović, Facebook: Odbranimo reke Stare Planine

The struggles in Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina are a sign that through activism, citizens can fight for what belongs to them by law. It has been shown that protests can protect rivers, villages and the entire living world. However, the question arises, is this the only way citizens can get the justice they are looking for, by „making“ the state to respect its own laws? Also, if the goal isn’t to obtain electricity through small hydropower plants, are there alternatives or is the complete abandonment of small hydropower plants the only and best solution?

„Contrary to what the hydropower lobby tells us, ecological small hydropower plants don’t exist,“ claims Dr. Martin Pusch of Berlin’s Leibniz Institute for Freshwater Research and Inland Fisheries. „Ecological impacts of hydropower plants, such as turning the free flow into a reservoir, interrupting the transport of sediment in the stream, creating obstacles to fish migration and mass killing of fish by turbines (since even fish 30 centimeters long can pass through protective gratings which are 1.5-2 centimeters wide (the gratings are usually 5 centimeters) in front of the turbines) can only be partially mitigated by rather expensive construction measures, and those measures are so expensive that the hydroelectric power plant becomes uneconomical“, he explains.

However, he cites Unkelmühle, located on the river Zieg, near Bonn, once the capital of West Germany, as a positive example of a small hydroelectric power plant. The Zieg is one of the best rivers for salmon reintroduction in Germany, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). It’s also stated that Unkelmühle is located 44 km upstream of the Rhine and therefore represents a so-called bottleneck for salmon to reach potential spawning grounds in the upper Zieg. Unkelmühleis now considered one of the „best practice“ small hydropower plants in Germany from a fish protection perspective. Since 2011, it has been extensively renovated to optimize fish passage, with a focus on safe downstream migration. A number of passages and bypasses have been built to allow fish to swim downstream instead of passing through the turbines, including two passages designed especially for eels, it says in the mentioned text. The financial side, however, says that the upgrade measures for this hydroelectric plant cost more than 5 million euros (state money), which makes it uneconomical.

When asked what are the better alternatives to small hydropower plants, Pusch gives several solutions. One is the technical improvement of existing large hydropower plants by installing new, more efficient turbines, which results in an increase in electricity production by up to 30%, according to the world’s largest turbine manufacturer VOITH.

Then, of course, there is solar energy, in commercial parks and on private rooftops, which is particularly effective in meeting the demand for electricity for air conditioning in the summer. Solar energy can be stored by building pumped hydroelectric power plants (with a nearly closed water circuit, as used in Switzerland for example) that can be effectively built on some of the steep mountains of the Western Balkans.

There is also wind energy, especially on the mountain tops and in the Pannonian plain, where there are also resources for geothermal energy. Hungary, for example, was ranked fifth in Europe in terms of geothermal district heating in 2017 with 635.66 GWh, according to data published on the website of the German Geothermal Association (BVG).

Cover photo: Milan Simonović, Facebook: Odbranimo reke Stare planine

The article was made in collaboration between Zoomer and Polekol.
The article is available on English, MacedonianBHS and Albanian language.

English translation: Zorana Vidojković


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