“Rakita residents clashed with private security guards at a construction site for a small hydroelectric power plant.” – went a news story carried by the web portal “Južne vesti” on Monday, the day this piece was written. The clash between Rakita residents and private security guards hired by an investor in the Babušnica municipality is just a continuation of a protest by locals who have been trying to prevent the construction of a small hydroelectric plant on the Rakita river since this summer, with the help of activists from the citizens’ group “Odbranimo reke Stare Planine” .
This is just one of the locations and just one of the rivers throughout Serbia that locals are trying to defend from investors who want to build small hydroelectric plants on them. The most well-known and well-attended protest was held at the beginning of September in Pirot, when more than a thousand people demanded that small hydro construction on the rivers of Stara planina be stopped. Apart from several rivers of Stara planina (Visočica, Rudinjska reka), there are initiatives and eco-associations whose goal is to stop small hydro construction on the Danube, Rzav, and the Rudnička, Jošanička and Rupska rivers.
Energy produced by small hydro is formally designated as “green” or “clean”, renewable energy. By transitioning to clean, green energy sources, the proportion of energy produced by burning coal is reduced, as well as pollution, and thus the huge healthcare costs associated with polluted air are also cut. Serbia has made a commitment to the Energy Community to increase the proportion of “green” energy to 27% of the total energy consumption by the year 2020. In the past few years, there has been a boom in small hydro construction on many watercourses. Why, then, are citizens across Serbia protesting against small hydro construction on rivers running through their towns?
„Hydropower is only renewable and sustainable at first glance, i.e. it is renewable in the sense of the water cycle, but not necessarily when it comes to endangering associated natural resources. The influence of small hydro on the environment is not negligible, in fact, it is often profound, and can cause permanent damage to watercourses.” said Goran Sekulić from WWF Adria for Vreme. “Pipes laid into the riverbed cause permanent damage to the watercourse – though it is forbidden, all investors lay pipes into the riverbed to cut costs – and those pipes carry a larger volume of water than is permitted, which means that the regulations on minimal river water flow are not respected. This is very difficult to track and control under current conditions, and all the small hydro operators use that to their advantage. Also, surrounding habitats are destroyed during the construction process, and by directly connecting several small hydro plants, the total effect on the environment is increased. Even the local water supply is threatened”, said Sekulić.
However, small hydro is only in its infancy in Serbia – fewer than 100 small hydro plants have been built in Serbia so far, whereas the plan is to have more than 800 of them constructed. Not only are resources the local population depends on destroyed, but locals don’t stand to benefit at all – profits are funnelled to investors, and the number of jobs created is negligible: through automation, a single person can run multiple small hydro plants at once.
According to Sekulić, in 2013, the competent institutions put out a public call for permits to construct small hydro plants on 317 locations, which was followed by another call for a further 142 locations. “The list of locations is based on an outdated cadastre of mini hydro plants from 1989. The watercourses on many of those locations have changed significantly since then. It should be noted that, aside from the fact that current data on watercourses were not taken into account, and that environmental protection was not considered when putting out these calls, the entire process was completely closed to the public”, said Sekulić.
Data on small hydro construction obtained by the CINS show that, between 2013 and 2017, EPS was the primary recipient of state funds for electricity produced by small hydro, while in second place were companies owned by Nikola Petrović or his business partners, with more than €10 million in income. Petrović is a former director of “Elektromreža Srbije”, and godfather to president Aleksandar Vučić. The state buys electricity from investors who build small hydro plants at higher prices, which is ultimately paid for by citizens as a separate item on their electricity bills.
“The construction and operation of small hydro plants destroys biodiversity in water courses, disrupts water supplies, and endangers local communities’ traditional way of life. (…) Interest groups and individuals reap huge financial rewards while doing great ecological damage in protected areas, and all that is paid for by the poor citizens of Serbia through electricity bills. This is not about the national interest, since building 850 small hydro plants would only provide for 1.7-2% of Serbia’s energy needs.“, states, among other things, the letter of support for the citizens’ group “Odbranimo reke Stare Planine”, signed at the end of July by the Dean of the Faculty of Forestry in Belgrade, Dr. Ratko Ristić, from the Department for Flooding and Erosion.
In late September 2018, the first European Summit on Rivers was held in Sarajevo, where a declaration was adopted – a list of demands to protect the last free rivers in Europe, as well as to restore ecologically significant rivers. “Hydroelectric power plants are one of the main threats to rivers”, states the Declaration’s introduction which, among other things, calls on the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Energy Community, the EBRD, the EIB and European heads of state and government to “stop promoting and financing hydropower projects as sustainable energy sources” and to “stop promoting small hydroelectric power plant projects and tighten environmental regulations”.
“When a river loses its energy, it ceases to be a river, and turns into an enslaved natural resource. The freedom to harmonize water profiles with the surroundings, interact with other natural elements, and propagate life is curtailed. When a river’s flow is stopped or its energy seized, the river becomes a servant working for “modern colonizers” (who have never been the “good guys” in any sense of the term). The fight against small hydro, which has resulted in many citizens’ actions and initiatives in Serbia and the region, in many cases simply means demanding that already existing laws are respected, and that resources the State has already classified as “protected” are actually protected.“ said Dučica Trnavac Bogdanović, project manager at “Mladi istraživači Srbije” for Vreme.
According to Dragana Mileusnić, program manager for Southeast Europe at the Nature Conservancy, an international NGO dedicated to nature conservation, solutions to this problem exist, but they involve cooperation between various levels of government and professionals in the area, and above all, respecting the local communities’ demands. She says that her organization thinks that sustainable solutions for the energy system can be found by increasing the use of abundant resources such as solar and wind power, which would reduce the need for new hydroelectric power plants to a minimum. She points out the Ministry for Environmental Protection has already taken steps in the right direction – for example, banning the construction of small hydro plants in protected areas.
“Still, in order for those decisions to be adopted, and then implemented, close cooperation and support from the Ministry of Energy is needed. Also, the Ministry of Energy, as far as we know, is working on revising the small hydro cadaster. That is a great opportunity to include a range of criteria which would ensure the economic, social, and ecological sustainability in the small hydro sector. However, public participation must also be ensured, especially that of local communities in the process, which has so far not been the case”, she said.
Having enumerated the problems of small hydro in Serbia – unregulated construction, absence of criteria which would take all aspects into consideration (social, economic, and environmental protection aspects), lack of transparency in decisions to approve building permits (which as a rule circumvents local communities), centralization of decision making in a few institutions (the Ministry of Mining and Energy, the Ministry of Construction and Infrastructure) with very limited influence from institutions in the fields of water management and environmental protection, avoiding systematic planning and making ad hoc decisions on individual projects – Goran Sekulić points out that small hydro construction most often circumvents impact assessment studies as well, which also drastically reduces opportunities for public involvement.
“However, it is important to point out that, by fighting against small hydro, we are certainly not advocating for the use of coal energy. By no means! We think that there is a need to reconsider large hydroelectric projects and to reform already existing energy systems. The required percentage of energy obtained from renewable sources can be reached by using multiple energy sources”, concludes Dušica Trnavac Bogdanović.