World Water Day 2015
by Big-Jump-Team EN
Raise your voice in solidarity for some of the last remaining wild rivers of Europe
Balkan rivers are some of the wildest rivers in Europe – like the Balkan music they are wild, lively and bring joy to people. And yet, they are currently under severe threat from hydropower projects. The three main areas of the Vjosa River, Mavrovo National Park and the Sava River are particularly vulnerable. We can ensure their continued existence as natural, free-flowing rivers through acting in solidarity with the local people of these Balkan regions by writing letters in support of their preservation (sample letter at the end of the article).Below, the Big Jump Challenge provides you with background information, introduces Save the Blue Heart of Europe - a coalition for the health of Balkan rivers - and above all invites you to commit to a small act of solidarity. To find out more, read on below…
What is "Save the Blue Heart of Europe"?
They are a coalition of NGOs - headed by an international team from EuroNatur (Founder for the European Nature Heritage) – and RiverWatch (Society for the Protection of Rivers) - who aim to raise awareness about dam projects and construction plans in the Balkan Peninsula, on some of the wildest, most biodiverse and most natural rivers of Europe. Local partner NGOs who are in league with this awareness-raising campaign to save these rivers from anthropogenic destruction come from Albania, Macedonia, Croatia, Slovenia, and more. According to new analysis, there are more than 630 medium-sized projects officially on the way. But including the smaller scale projects, there are about 2000 projects underway. This enormous amount of dam-building and hydropower activity will undoubtedly have dramatic and irreversible impacts on the health of freshwaters in the area.
Why are Balkan Rivers important for the ecological integrity of rivers in Europe?
At the moment, the danger facing rivers in the Balkan Peninsula from dam-building projects is high, and yet this fact is still relatively unknown in Europe and internationally. Not only that, the vast biodiversity and varied pristine riparian landscapes are unique in their wildness and excellent level of structural and biochemical integrity. In fact, although most of the Balkan Peninsula’s freshwater bodies are not included within the protection of the Water Framework Directive (WFD), the structural intactness and biodiversity of rivers in the Balkan Peninsula is exactly what is being aimed for through the WFD this year, for all rivers and lakes in Europe. We can consider the freshwater here to be geographically and symbolically part of a “Europe of rivers”.
For example, Save the Blue Heart of Europe studied the physical structure and biochemistry of rivers in this region and it turns out that 80% of the 35, 000 km of rivers, which were assessed are still in good or very good condition, as would be measured by the WFD. Nonetheless, dam building and hydropower projects are being considered even within national parks in the area, like the Mavrovo National Park in Macedonia. It goes without saying such activities would prove disastrous to the many indigenous species of molluscs, fish and other wildlife this peninsula is home to, and therefore its current status as a biodiversity hotspot would be severely compromised.
What are their main activities?
Of course, all hydroelectric projects in the area can’t be banned, because energy needs must still be addressed and met. Save the Blue Heart of Europe’s goal is to focus on saving the most unique, biodiverse, and ecologically important rivers in the Balkan Peninsula. They’ve identified three areas that are particularly worth saving to be part of Europe’s natural heritage: the Vjosa River in Albania, the Mavrovo National Park in Macedonia, and the Sava River which flows through Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia. Their stated goals for the next few years are the following:
- 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 master plan 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.
Local teams in these three main areas work to develop grassroots initiatives to address specific needs of the area. This includes not only blocking big dam projects which would destroy the ecological integrity of rivers in the Balkan Peninsula, but also developing alternative visions for sustainable development in the area.
What is so important about these three areas and what is being done there?
Let’s get to know each of these areas in turn and find out why they’re particularly worth saving:
The Vjosa River flows through Greece and Albania and is a not only an example of a wild, living, free-flowing river, but is also home to spawning fish and migratory birds as well as many other species. Due to its level of structural health and lack of obstructions, it’s a meandering river with many features associated with wild rivers: braided river sections, islands, oxbow lakes, and the riverbed contributes to a wide watershed area. The Vjosa discharges 204 m³/s into the Adriatic Sea.
Although 37 big dam projects are being planned there (with four currently under construction), the current level of scientific knowledge of this river is quite limited aside from knowing that this is one of the biodiversity hotspots of Europe. Certain species close to threatened or endangered elsewhere in Europe are still thriving here, not to mention there is also a number of endemic species in this area, not found anywhere else. These include otters, the European eel, fish species such as the Ohrid loach and Pindus stone loach. In addition, endangered endemic plant species are still fruitful here.
People living on the banks of the Vjosa engage in crop production, livestock farming and fishing as livelihoods, due to the river supporting fertile land and an abundance of fish species. The area is increasingly becoming a magnet for tourism as well, since many activities such as rafting, canoeing, kayaking and swimming can be enjoyed there. Eco-tourism is certainly a viable economic activity that can be pursued here instead of hydropower. Save the Blue Heart of Europe demands that the projected dam projects in this area be banned and that the area be designated the first wild river national park in Europe.
Mavrovo National Park in Macedonia is already one of Europe’s oldest national parks, and its landscape includes beech forests, alpine meadows and pristine rivers and streams. Aside from supporting a variety of rich wildlife such as wolves, bears, otters and rare species of trout, it is also the last remaining refuge for the Balkan lynx – a critically endangered subspecies of the Eurasian lynx. The park also supports more than 1000 species of flora.
Unfortunately the park already has two operating hydropower plants within it, an additional one under construction, and 20 more projected to be built in the coming years. Since many of the dams are considered “small” according to Macedonian law, no environmental impact assessments are needed. Needless to say, such projects not only threaten the riparian ecosystems of the park but also the status of the park itself.
According to Dr. Urs Breitenmoser of the IUCN’s Cat Specialist Group, “Mavrovo hosts [...] the last source of population with reproduction of the Balkan lynx [...]. Putting any additional stress on this source population may lead to the extinction of one of the most threatened mammal populations in Europe.” In the case of Mavrovo National Park, Save the Blue Heart of Europe demands that no new hydropower plants are built inside the park, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), World Bank, and other investors retract their funding for these projects, and that Macedonian government abandon any future projects in the park.
Finally, the Sava River is important like the others, not only for its pristine condition and biodiversity, but also for its flood protection capacity. Yearly flooding cycles in spring drain water into the ample floodplains of the Sava, which can store 2 billion m³ of water. These floodplains in turn provide a rich habitat for a variety of migratory and endemic bird species such as the Sand Martin, Common Tern, White Storks, several species of heron and rare European Spoonbills. These species, who are able to nest and feed in these productive floodplains, are often rarer or not even present in other parts of Southern Europe, and hence this area remains an important area biologically. Furthermore, the rare Danube Salmon, or Huchen, which is the largest salmonid species, can also be found here. Finally, alluvial forests found in this area support English oak and ash trees, increasingly becoming rarer in other parts of Europe, as well as breeding populations of Lesser-spotted Eagles, White-tailed Eagles and one population of the Black Stork. How much longer can these species safely thrive here if hydro projects inundate the area? The oxbow lakes, meander plains and floodplain forests are currently classified as Ramsar sites, but how much longer? Not to mention that the flood protection capabilities of the Sava affect settlements and cities further downstream – like Sisak, Slavonski Brod, and Belgrade.
Additionally, many traditional cottage industries still exist in the area around the Sava, and practices such as local honey production, cow cheese making, and pork products still abound here, as does local traditional agriculture and forestry as sources of income for the people populating these areas. Ecotourism has also been developing and could also turn into a main sector in the region if given time to do so.
The Sava is under threat from not only current and further hydropower developments, but also pending plans for this area to be used as a navigational route for shipping. The main demands that Save the Blue Heart of Europe has for this region are: no additional hydropower dam construction here, and in particular not in the Natura 2000 or lowland area sites, restoration of the Sava in Slovenia to bring back the Huchen, implementation of erosion mitigation measures in Slovenia, disallowing shipping traffic to navigate through the area, the EU must no longer finance projects here that violate EU directives, and restoration of the main river section flowing from Slovenia to Serbia.
What can I do?
If you are from another part of the Europe of rivers: why not make use of your voice? Let the authorities responsible know that people elsewhere also care about these precious rivers and ecosystems, and that they are willing to express their solidarity. To this end, Save the Blue Heart of Europe proposes the following addresses that all of us can send letters to. Below you will find a sample letter that you can use at your convenience, or even better adapt to your ideas and questions.
Mr. Zoran Milanović, Prime minister
Vlada Republike Hrvatske
Trg Sv. Marka 2
Mr. Borut Pahor, Prime minister
To: [Add address] [Your address]
Dear Prime Minister,
We are writing to you to raise our voice in solidarity with the Balkan peoples and their precious rivers. The biodiversity and varied riparian landscapes are unique in excellent level of structural and biochemical integrity. In fact, although not all of the Balkan Peninsula’s freshwater bodies are included within the protection of the Water Framework Directive, the structural intactness and biodiversity of rivers in the Balkan Peninsula is exactly what is being aimed for through the WFD this year 2015, for all rivers and lakes in Europe. In short, they are a paradigm for the preservation of water as our cultural heritage that is important for all of Europe and the world. We all can learn from and draw inspiration from these rivers and the preservation of them that had so far been achieved by the people of this region.
It is for this reason that we would like to express our concern with respect to the now booming hydropower development in this region. We urge you to explore ways for a clean and sustainable energy future that does not come at the cost of losing the biological-cultural heritage.
With respect to the Sava river, we ask you to consider:
- A stop of additional hydropower dam construction here, and in particular not in the Natura 2000 or lowland area sites,
- Disallowing shipping traffic in this area
- Promoting restoration of the Sava to bring back the Huchen,
- Promoting the main river section flowing from Slovenia to Serbia.
- Implementing of erosion mitigation measures.
With respect to those Sava areas that are part of the European Union, we would welcome information about the implementation of the Water Frame Directive (WFD), and whether the EU financial support of projects in the area correspond with the WFD.
These letters are part of European wide campaign for river preservation in the goal year of the WFD 2015. In particular, the Big Jump Challenge 2015 is the youth campaign for water conservation (http://en.bigjumpchallenge.net/home.html). Water conservation is a long-term issue that goes across the generations, and is done also for future generations. We therefore would very much appreciate to hear from you, and will also take your responses to a European Rivers Parliament of Youth from all over Europe in July 2015. Europe and the world are looking to your part of the world, and we hope that there will be joint ways to preserve the biological cultural heritage and find sustainable futures together.
[team name and signatures]
Update: Big Jumps in Albania on European River Swimming Day, July 12th, 2015!
As an update to Big Jumps that have taken place in this region of wild rivers, we wanted to highlight and show three Jumps that happened in Albania: one at the Vjosa river in the city of Permet, one at the Benca river, which is a tributary of the Vjosa river - but this time in the city of Tepelenë, and another at the Osumi river in Berat. Check out the pictures of these Jumps below!
Vjosa River at Permet (pictures by Elton Pashollari)
Benca River in Tepelenë (tributary to the Vjosa River)
Photo credits from left to right: Besjana Guri, Olta Hadushaj, Besjana Guri, Olta Hadushaj, Olta Hadushaj (bottom)
Osumi River at Berat
Photo credits from left to right: Camille Saillant, Camille Saillant, Grace Beah