Small changes in the operation of hydropower plants on the Drin can lead to significant reductions in flood risk downstream, at minimal cost. This is one of the key findings of the Nexus Assessment for the Drin basin that has just been prepared by GWP-Med and UNECE. The Assessment also points to tools that can reconcile rival interests over the use of natural resources from the energy, agriculture, forest and water sectors in the Drin river basin, and proposes solutions to capture opportunities for joint benefits across sectors and borders.
The Phase II Nexus Assessment for the Drin River Basin was prepared within the framework of the project Promoting the Sustainable Management of Natural Resources in Southeastern Europe, through the use of the Nexus approach, financed by the Austrian Development Agency (ADA) and implemented by Global Water Partnership-Mediterranean (GWP-Med) in partnership with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).
The Drin river, also called Drim, flows through Albania, Kosovo* and North Macedonia. Its catchment includes parts of Montenegro and Greece. The Riparians had signed in 2011 a Memorandum of Understanding on the vision for the sustainable management of the basin. Coordinated actions take place since, facilitated by GWP-Med, leading to the endorsement of the Strategic Action Programme (SAP) for the sustainable management of the Extended Drin Basin, endorsed by high-level representatives from the five Riparians in April 2020.
The Drin river is a key hydropower resource for Albania and North Macedonia, while it is also providing water for irrigation and the local population’s basic needs. The livelihoods of many people living in the area depend on forests, and especially on the production of wood for heating or building materials.
Everyone must participate to achieve best outcome
The energy sector, nature conservation, agriculture and forestry are all interlinked, which implies competition over the same space and same resources.
For instance, the wood industry depends on water available for healthy forests. Overexploitation of forests leads to land degradation. Erosion and floods can damage infrastructure like irrigation systems and increase sediment loads in hydropower reservoirs, complicating operations and increasing costs.
The construction and operation of hydropower plants carry environmental risks but, on the other hand, their reservoirs can contribute to flood prevention. In addition, they provide electricity for a myriad of families and for initiatives to make the economy greener.
Not just black or white: hydropower projects can damage the environment, but they also help control floods and provide electricity for the economy’s green transition
This is where the Nexus Approach steps in to reconcile different interests – acknowledging the needs of the stakeholders and applying tools and solutions for the best available outcome for everyone at the same time. Regulators, lawmakers and other authorities, representatives from Academia and civil society including from organisations relevant to women and vulnerable groups are all essential for finding an optimal path.
Everyone must participate, experts pointed out in the Nexus Assessment and highlighted the need to simultaneously preserve forests, boost flood control and protect biodiversity.
The document was produced with significant contribution by stakeholders including Ministries, National Agencies and other institutions from the riparian countries.
The Phase I Nexus Assessment was prepared in 2018-2019 as a Thematic Report on the Nexus in the context of the Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis (TDA) for the Drin Basin. It identified two key issues, which were explored in detail in Phase II:
- The interface of hydropower operations and floods risk
- Aspects of sustainable biomass and forest management and related interlinkages
Drin hydropower plants can slash flood risk with minimal impact on electricity output
Albania’s three biggest hydropower plants are on the Drin. They have a combined capacity of 1.35 GW. Downstream from the 500 MW Fierza facility is hydropower plant Koman, with a capacity of 600 MW, followed by the Vau i Dejës system of 250 MW, the last in the cascade. A project is underway to build a 210 MW hydropower plant, Skavica, upstream from Fierza.
North Macedonia has two hydropower units (Globocica 42MW and Spilje 84MW) on the Black Drin, which unites with the White Drin in northeastern Albania.
The basin is very flood-prone at the downstream plains and the risk significantly depends on the quantity of water released at Vau-i-Dejës, the last hydropower plant in the cascade. In turn, the inflow factor is linked to the operation of the dams and hydropower plants upstream and driven by electricity demand.
The Assessment includes the estimated effect of raising the obligatory buffer volume at Drin river dams by 20%
The new Nexus Assessment relies on an integrated water-energy model, that was linked by analysts from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and the Polytechnic of Tirana. The model takes into account precipitation and runoff in the basin as well as cost optimization for power production and investments in the electricity systems of the Riparians. The available data was used for several scenarios.
The main takeaway from the Assessment is that running hydropower plants with improved flood control rules would have a minor impact on the security of electricity supply. Increasing the buffer volume of reservoirs by 20% in the wet season translates to 26-34 million cubic metres additional capacity in the Spilje reservoir in North Macedonia, and 144-270 million at the Fierza reservoir. This would result in an average decrease in power output of just 2.7% for Spilje and 1.9% for Fierza, which could be largely offset from increased generation in the other 3 HPPs in the cascade.
This additional buffer would accommodate significant water volumes in flood events, significantly reducing risks downstream. According to the Assessment, in the case of small-medium flood events, the above small change in the operation of HPPs would result in a reduction of the economic damages of floods by 58% in the affected parts in Albania and 30% in the Montenegrin ones.
Less rain, snow will lead to less hydro generation
The climate change impact is seen lowering hydropower production in North Macedonia by 14% by 2050 on the Drin river
The integrated water-energy model also assessed the climate change impact. A drop in average annual precipitation in the basin by 3% in 2025 and 6% in 2050, results in a 10% lower output in North Macedonian hydroelectric facilities in 2030 and a decrease of 14% by 2050. For the Albanian cascade, the estimated decrease is 6% to 8% and 7% to 10%, respectively.
When the planned Skavica dam is added to the equation, with 196 MW and water storage of 2.3 bilion cubic meters, Albania’s electricity imports drop by more than 9 TWh or 16% between 2025 and 2042. The facility’s effect on flood control is yet to be assessed as there is insufficient technical data and information on operation rules.
How to address overexploitation of forests
One of the chapters of the Nexus Assessment Report covers forest management and biomass production and offers suggestions with regard to policy. With a negative balance of half a million cubic meters per year, wood biomass harvest is directly adding to forest exploitation and degradation. It is one of the main energy sources for the residents and the economy in the Drin basin.
There are opportunities for funding from the EU’s IPA mechanism
Sustainable forest management has a positive impact on soil and water conservation. It can reduce flood risks and sediment transport, while also maintaining water quality and availability. Close national, regional and transboundary cooperation between the water and forest sectors is necessary to tackle the challenges in forest management, the authors stressed.
The experts that produced the Assessment recommended the introduction of systems for certification of wood products and payment for ecosystem services in the basin – water users downstream would pay for improved forest management or reforestation upstream.
The findings point to opportunities for funding from the European Union’s upcoming Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA III). It can contribute to administrative capacity, forest restoration and the development of sustainable forest management and wood harvest practices, the document reads.
Measures for switching to pellets mustn’t jeopardize agriculture, forest health
Small and medium-sized enterprises need support to boost the production of processed biomass products (pellets, woodchips, briquettes) as well as the heating and combined heat and power devices that use them, experts added. Still, the Assessment warns against any measures that would impact agriculture and forest conservation, and proposes the introduction of mechanisms like quotas and price reporting.
Consumers could also be aided in switching from firewood to processed biomass. Agreements with development and commercial banks for microcredit and subsidized loans are a typical headwind for such initiatives.
The authors underscored that stakeholders and institutions at local, regional and national levels need to agree on interlinkages between natural resources, water, energy and food and establish regional cooperation to secure sustainable use and preserve ecosystem services.
The materials of the Nexus Assessment for the Drin basin are available at the links below: