More than two years on, the public and citizens across the Balkans fighting for the right to water and against run-of-river small hydropower plants are not giving up on their struggle. Protests and actions were organized from July 6 to 16 across the region, with a conference titled “Rakita – the rule of law crushed” to be held in Belgrade tomorrow.
In the village of Rakita on Mt. Stara Planina in Serbia, inspectors banned the investor from proceeding with the construction of the Zvonce run-of-river small hydropower plant (SHPP) and ordered the removal of pipes from the riverbed, but the works continue regardless.
The issue will be addressed in Belgrade tomorrow, at a conference titled “Rakita – the rule of law crushed,” with the media and the public to be informed about the latest developments in Rakita and the illegal resumption of works to lay pipes for the Zvonce mini hydropower plant despite the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s decision ordering the removal of pipes from the Rakitska riverbed.
The lack of reaction from the authorities concerning the failure to implement the effective decision can lead to an escalation of conficts, placing the environment and people in jeopardy, according to the organizers – Civic Initiatives, the Defend Rivers of Mt. Stara Planina movement, and Savski Nasip.
“When we say the rule of law, this should mean a state where laws and regulations are observed and their violation sanctioned”
“When we say the rule of law, this should mean a state where laws and regulations are observed and their violation sanctioned. In Rakita, however, the investors building the SHPP are obviously allowed to violate the law with impunity, without any of the authorities lifting a finger to resolve the problem. They are playing the ‘Not it’ game,” Teodora Zahirović of Civic Initiatives told Balkan Green Energy News.
The “problem” may be an insufficient word to describe the environmental disaster that the SHPP’s construction can cause, as stated in reports and analyses of the Defend Rivers of Mt. Stara Planina activists, says Zahirović.
“Meanwhile, the residents of Rakita are forced to defend the remnants of the rule of law with their bodies practically, and the rule of law has not only collapsed, it has been almost completely destroyed. The threats and attacks on the locals who have been bravely and resolutely fighting against the SHPP have lately grown to such extents that the residents say they are afraid to walk through the village alone in the evening. The basic freedom of assembly and right to protest have been drastically violated in Rakita. The rule of law means securing these basic freedoms,” Zahirović says.
Serbs and Albanians fighting SHPP together in Štrpce
Leaving aside the political differences over Kosovo*, Serbs and Albanians in Štrpce have been protesting for months against the construction of five mini hydropower plants in the Sirinićka Župa region, local media reports.
The project being carried out by Priština-based Matkos is worth EUR 30 million. But as TV Most reports, the construction of mini hydropower plants on the Obe Reke location in Štrpce would jeopardize drinking water supply for around 4,000 residents.
Meanwhile, one of the protests organized by environmental activists and civil society organizations across the Balkans from July 6 to 16 was held in Dečani. During the protest, the residents symbolically “buried” their river on which Keloks, a subsidiary of the Austrian energy company Kelag, “has been illegally building for years,” according to Riverwatch and EuroNatur.
Public opinion turned against small hydro
Many people in the Balkans live hard lives and environmental protection is still not a priority. However, the struggle against small hydropower plants has united many different interests.
The local residents say that the plants’ construction would make hard lives in remote areas even harder, experts say that run-of-river SHPPs destroy ecosystems and biodiversity, and civil society organizations are going a step further, providing arguments why solar, for example, should be incentivized instead of small hydropower plants to avoid a backlash against all renewables.
The public pressure has led to some results in parts of the region. The Municipal Council of Dimitrovgrad in eastern Serbia has adopted a decision to propose the expulsion of all potential locations for the construction of small hydropower plants (SHPPs) from the local spatial plan. Albania has terminated concession contracts for a number of hydropower projects, including SHPPs, while Montenegro announced that procedures for the construction of SHPPs will be reviewed and that no subsidies will be approved for the construction of new ones.
International institutions have reacted as well. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) will ask commercial banks from the beginning of 2020 to refer all high-risk projects – including all hydropower plants – for additional checks, require them to meet higher environmental standards than previously, and ask that such projects are disclosed to the public on the financial intermediary’s website.
Last year, the Energy Community Secretariat said that public participation is an essential part of the environmental assessment procedures, while non-compliance with this obligation is a reason to challenge any permit granted.