SARAJEVO/BANJA LUKA (Reuters) - Kayakers from across Europe took to Bosnia’s Vrbas river on Monday to protest against a boom in dam construction across the western Balkans that campaigners say threaten to cause irreparable environmental damage.
The kayakers joined activists and local people who have been campaigning for years against plans to build two new hydroelectric power plants on the Vrbas river.
The two facilities are part of a planned network of nearly 3,000 plants foreseen across the western Balkans, a region known as the ‘blue heart’ of Europe for its pristine rivers. About a third of them would be located in protected areas, the campaign groups RiverWatch and EuroNatur said in a study.
“There is a large gap between nature lovers, who have a chance but also the right to fight for nature, and those who are only driven by money,” said former Slovenian Olympic athlete Rok Rozman, who headed a 10 km-long (6 mile) colorful flotilla of kayakers paddling down the Vrbas.
Authorities and investors view hydro power as a strong green alternative to other forms of energy and say it will help the western Balkan nations to achieve the renewable energy targets of the European Union which they all aspire to join.
But campaigners say the dams will drain rivers used by local communities for drinking, farming, fishing and tourism, while destroying the habitat of species unique to the region, such as the Danube salmon and the Balkan lynx.
“It’s a dam ‘tsunami’. Literally, there is a project on every kilometer. The dams in the Balkans put 10 percent of the entire fish species population in Europe at risk,” said Ulrich Eichelmann, head of RiverWatch. “We must stop this craziness”.
The campaigners complain of poor planning laws, generous subsidies and endemic graft, saying they are exacerbating the problems linked to the mass construction of the dams.
A recent hydro morphological study showed a third of Balkan rivers are in a pristine natural state compared to the rest of Europe where most have already been dammed, said Gabriel Schwaderer, head of EuroNatur.
“This network of veins is risking a thrombosis or even heart attack,” Schwaderer told a gathering of more than 200 scientists and activists in Sarajevo last week.
Campaigners urged national governments and the EU to streamline environmental and energy laws. They also called on banks to apply more stringent rules for hydro projects and to increase funding for other renewable energy sources, whose potential in the region remains untapped.
Additional reporting by Reuters TV; Editing by Gareth Jones