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Dams are a threat to Western Balkans rivers: NGOs call for ending subsidies for hydropower projects

Freshwater ecosystems are being lost at unprecedented rates. According to the latest Living Planet Report, populations of freshwater species have declined by 84 per cent since 1970.

In Europe, 60 per cent of rivers are in bad health, degraded and destroyed by hydropower dams, dykes, drainage canals, pollution, unsustainable sand and gravel extraction and poorly planned navigation infrastructure.

WWF Adria a branch of the international NGO World Wide Fund (WWF), together with CEE Bankwatch, one of the largest networks of environmental NGOs in Central and Eastern Europe, are drawing attention to the Western Balkans’ region, home to some of the last free-flowing rivers in Europe and currently under attack.

Around 2,700 small hydropower plants are planned across the region, threatening to destroy hundreds of free-flowing rivers and streams, losing more than 5,000 kilometres of pristine rivers.

“Supported by the state, small hydropower development is a major threat to the Balkans’ rivers,” said Zoran Mateljak, WWF Adria Freshwater Program Manager. “It is also fuelling social unrest in the region, as more and more local communities are rising up against small harmful hydropower projects. The time has come for states to end subsidies for the destruction of nature and protect the last free-flowing rivers in Europe.”

Both organisations have reminded that over the last ten years, the number of hydropower plants under 10 megawatts (MW) has quadrupled in Western Balkan countries. Yet, despite this, they generated only 3.6 per cent of total electricity.

“The EU has already moved away from feed-in tariffs for all but the smallest projects, so the subsidies system now in place for hydropower in most Western Balkan countries directly contradicts the EU guidelines on state aid for environmental protection and energy,” explained Pippa Gallop, Southeast Europe Energy Advisor at Bankwatch. “Governments must change the rules urgently to prevent any more unnecessary destruction of our rivers”. 

The disproportionate environmental and social damage caused by small hydropower compared to its energy generation potential has already been recognised by the Energy Community, the EU’s Technical Expert Group on the sustainable finance taxonomy and in the EU’s Principles for Sustainable Hydropower Development in the Western Balkans.

“As the countries of the Western Balkans are setting their 2030 renewable energy targets and policies, it is time to end subsidies for small hydropower projects and focus on more viable alternatives,” concluded both organisations. “Increasing energy efficiency and investing in wind and solar both have tremendous potential in the region if planned correctly and with public participation.”

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