Leading conservation organizations around the world are urgently calling on the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina to turn a breakthrough resolution banning new small hydropower plants into law. The resolution, which holds no legal power yet, was initially passed June 23, but the deadline to permanently implement the resolution and permanently ban new small hydropower plants is Wednesday, Sept. 23. If the government fails to turn the resolution into law in the near future, they will again be putting at grave risk thousands of kilometers of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s wild rivers and the people and wildlife that depend on the waterways.

“This is an opportunity for Bosnia and Herzegovina to set a powerful example and become Europe’s leader in protecting some of the most intact and biodiverse rivers on the continent,” said Barney Long, senior director of species conservation at Global Wildlife Conservation. “We were encouraged by the recent resolution to protect the rivers, but for this to make any real difference, it must now be signed into law. Otherwise these small hydropower plants are going to continue to cause irreversible damage to the freshwater-dependent wildlife and people that live there, altering the balance of these ecosystems that contribute to the overall health of our planet.”

The rivers between Slovenia and Albania, including those in Bosnia and Herzegovina, are considered the most important hotspot for threatened freshwater biodiversity in Europe. Sixty-nine fish species in these rivers live nowhere else in the world. The Balkan Rivers—known as Europe’s “blue heart”—are home to marble, softmouth and prespa trout; the endangered huchen (or Danube) salmon; the endangered Balkan lynx; and the endangered white-clawed crayfish. They provide critical spawning habitat for many of the 113 endangered freshwater fish species in the Balkans.

The Balkans’ rivers continue to face an onslaught of small hydropower plant construction, including in protected areas, with plans for 3,000 dams to be constructed in the region. The dams bring with them the construction of access roads, tunnels, bridges, and transmission lines, with an influx of other human activities that require tearing down the forests around the rivers and that threaten the animals that live there. According to freshwater experts, if this is allowed to continue, at least 10 percent of all European freshwater fish species will go extinct or will be pushed to the brink of extinction.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature Freshwater Biodiversity Unit is currently reviewing proposals for 11 freshwater Key Biodiversity Areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with the potential for more, underscoring that these sites are globally important for the health of the planet and for the persistence of biodiversity. Yet in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 436 small hydropower plants have either recently been built, are under construction, or are planned.

The projects are driven by local and foreign investors, with diverse financial support, including subsidies for renewables. Some investors use the argument that hydropower can help Bosnia and Herzegovina meet its goal of 40 percent renewable energy (one of the highest targets in Europe) to get the country a step closer to joining the European Union. Although current small hydro plants in Bosnia and Herzegovina only produce around 3 percent of the country’s annual energy and come at a huge environmental cost, the government has continued to grant permits and subsidies for these new small and medium hydro projects that have a negligible “renewable energy” contribution at a huge environmental cost.

“Bosnia and Herzegovina politicians see firsthand that small hydro evokes a visceral reaction across the country,” said Marsela Pecanac, founder of Atelier for Community Transformation – ACT. “Broad public support for rivers has swelled, energized by the local communities ready to defend their rivers with their lives. The politicians now have a unique opportunity to set a powerful example for the Balkans and Europe and ban all new hydro permanently with one swift action, creating a legacy for generations to come.”

Not only do the hydropower dams destroy the rivers and landscape around them, but they also divert and pollute water, and restrict access to clean drinking water for local communities and for use in agricultural practices and other livelihoods. The rivers also offer an opportunity for sustainable income through ecotourism, an industry that depends on healthy, intact rivers. And many Bosnia and Herzegovinia residents consider the rivers a part of their identity. Across the country, local communities, such as those around Neretvica and Kruščica rivers, have been rising up and holding protests, often forming human walls at construction sites to prevent bulldozers from starting the work.

“Whenever I visit the Balkan rivers, I am overwhelmed by the beauty and its richness,” said Ulrich Eichelmann, coordinator of the Blue Heart campaign from Riverwatch. “But what strikes me even more, is that people stand up for their rivers and streams—they don’t fight for money or fame, they fight for their rivers, their homeland and their future. This also is unique in today’s world. But these people need the help from all over the world. We must unite to save the Blue Heart of Europe.”

In addition to calling on the government of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina to formally ban the construction of small hydropower plants, the group of conservation organizations urges the other government entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republika Srpska, to pass a similar law. After the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina initiative, Republika Srpska had also proposed a similar resolution earlier this year for a temporary ban of all small hydropower projects in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but eventually the National Assembly voted against it, despite significant local community pressure.

The organizations putting out the call are from a broad coalition including: 2020 Action, American Rivers, Arnika, Atelier for Community Transformation – ACT, CEE Bankwatch Network, the Coalition for the Protection of Rivers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, David Brower Center, EarthAction, Earth Law Center, EuroNatur Foundation, Freshwater Life, Global Wildlife Conservation, International Rivers, the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission Freshwater Fish Specialist Group, the IUCN SSC Freshwater Conservation Committee, Institute for Environmental Security, Rainforest Action Network, The Redford Center, Riverwatch, Save the Blue Heart of Europe, Shoal, the World Fish Migration Foundation, World Future Council, and WWF.

Photo: Damming the Balkan rivers will have a huge impact on another of the region’s exclusive residents, the Albanian Water Frog, which has been classified as an Endangered species since 2004 ©  Benny Trapp via Creative Commons