At the European Wilderness Days, we heard a presentation from Ulrich Eichelmann, director of River Watch.  We learned that the situation in the entire Balkan River system is under serious threat from planned dam projects.  A staggering, 2683 hydroelectric projects are planned throughout this river system which is comprised of 10 countries in the Balkan region (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Northern Greece and parts of western Turkey).   This number is an addition to the 714 that already exist and the 66 that are already under construction.   Although 60% of the planned dams are small, the disruption to the flow and connectivity of these river basins would be severe, threatening whole ecosystems and the possible extinction of species.   Incredibly, financiers of the dam craze do not seem to be concerned with the fact that at least half of the planned dams are located in what are supposed to be protected areas, such as national parks, Ramsar sites, Biosphere Reserves, World Heritage Sites, and incredibly EU Nature2000.   One of these is the Mavrovo National Park in Macedonia, the oldest national park in Europe where an astounding 20 hydropower projects are planned, threatening the survival of the Balkan Lynx.

But who would finance such destruction?  Well it seems it is the usual suspects;  European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the European Investment Bank (EIB), the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC), Germany’s KfW development bank, in addition to private foreign investors from Austria, Italy, Germany, Norway and Turkey.   A recent study by CEE bankwatch on the financing of the Balkan dam craze found that there is a deadly combination of Europe’s last wild rivers, rampant corruption and inadequate nature protection, so the potential ecological destruction is immense.

The Balkan rivers are among the last free-flowing rivers in Europe. These largely wild and unspoiled rivers showcase some of the most unique and pristine riverine ecosystems in Europe and in the world. Turquoise crystal clear streams, stunningly steep gorges and waterfalls, form a landscape that hosts an amazing array of threatened and endemic species habitats.  The Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign calls for immediate action. Supported by a coalition of NGOS from Austria, Germany, Albania, Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia, and a larger network of activists from across the Balkans and Europe, the campaign advocates for the development of a master plan. The aim is to save the most valuable ecological core areas of the Balkan rivers from the destructive impacts of dam building, while ensuring that the dilemma often mentioned in favor of hydropower (“Every country needs electricity”) is addressed.

Pictures and videos can speak much louder than my words here in this blog, so check out for yourself what could be lost.

Two kayakers traveled the length of this largely undocumented river.  See the breathtaking scenery, rural life and people experiencing the last wild, free flowing river in Europe.

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Karin Eckhard is an international sustainable tourism expert based in Madrid, Spain

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