Hy­dropower dam would tame a wild river

Ac­tivists op­pose project they say will spoil the Vjosa

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NATION & WORLD - By Elena Becatoros and John Flesher

ALONG THE VJOSA RIVER — Un­der a broad plane tree near Al­ba­nia’s border with Greece, Jorgji Ilia fills a bat­tered flask from one of the Vjosa River’s many springs.

“There is noth­ing else bet­ter than the river,” the re­tired school­teacher says. “The Vjosa gives beauty to our vil­lage.”

The Vjosa is tem­per­a­men­tal and fickle, chang­ing from translu­cent cobalt blue to sludge brown to emer­ald green, from a steady flow to a rag­ing tor­rent. Noth­ing holds it back for more than 170 miles in its course through the forest-cov­ered slopes of Greece’s Pin­dus moun­tains to Al­ba­nia’s Adri­atic coast.

This is one of Europe’s last wild rivers. But for how long?

Al­ba­nia’s gov­ern­ment has set in mo­tion plans to dam the Vjosa and its trib­u­taries to gen­er­ate much-needed elec­tric­ity for one of Europe’s poor­est coun­tries, with the in­tent to build eight dams along the main river.

It’s part of a world hy­dropower boom, mainly in South­east Asia, South Amer­ica, Africa and less de­vel­oped parts of Europe. In the Balkans alone, about 2,800 projects to tame rivers are un­der­way or planned, says Olsi Nika of EcoAl­ba­nia, a non­profit that op­poses the projects.

Some tout hy­dropower as a re­li­able, cheap and re­new­able en­ergy source that helps curb de­pen­dence on planet-warm­ing fos­sil fu­els. But some re­cent stud­ies ques­tion hy­dropower’s value in the fight against global warm­ing. Crit­ics say the ben­e­fits of hy­dropower are over­stated — and out­weighed by the harm dams can do.

Rivers are a cru­cial part of the global wa­ter cy­cle. They act as na­ture’s ar­ter­ies, car­ry­ing en­ergy and nu­tri­ents across vast land­scapes, pro­vid­ing wa­ter for drink­ing, food pro­duc­tion and in­dus­try. They’re a means of trans­porta­tion for peo­ple and goods, and a haven for boaters and an­glers. Rivers are home to a di­ver­sity of fish — in­clud­ing tiny min­nows, trout and sal­mon — and pro­vide shel­ter and food for birds and mam­mals.

But dams in­ter­rupt their flow, and the life in and around them. While in­stalling fish lad­ders and widen­ing tun­nels to by­pass dams helps some species, it hasn’t worked in places like the Ama­zon, says Ju­lian Olden, a Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton ecol­o­gist.

Dams block the nat­u­ral flow of wa­ter and sed­i­ment. They also can change the chem­istry of the wa­ter and cause toxic al­gae to grow.

Those who live along the river­bank or rely on the wa­ter­way for their liveli­hood fear dams could kill the Vjosa as they know it. Its frag­ile ecosys­tem will be ir­re­versibly al­tered, and many res­i­dents will lose their land and homes.

In the 1990s, an Ital­ian com­pany was awarded a con­tract to build a dam along the Vjosa in south­ern Al­ba­nia. Con­struc­tion be­gan on the Kali­vac dam, but never was com­pleted, plagued with de­lays and fi­nan­cial woes.

Now, the gov­ern­ment has awarded a new con­tract for the site to a Turk­ish com­pany. En­ergy min­istry of­fi­cials re­jected mul­ti­ple in­ter­view re­quests to dis­cuss their hy­dropower plans.

Many lo­cals op­pose the plans. Dozens of res­i­dents from the vil­lage of Kute joined non­prof­its to file what was Al­ba­nia’s first en­vi­ron­men­tal law­suit against the con­struc­tion of a dam in the Po­cem gorge, a short dis­tance down­river from Kali­vac. They won in 2017, but the gov­ern­ment has ap­pealed.

The vic­tory, while sig­nif­i­cant, was just one bat­tle. A week later, the gov­ern­ment is­sued the Kali­vac con­tract. EcoAl­ba­nia plans to fight that project, too.

Eco­log­i­cally, there is a lot at stake. A re­cent study found the Vjosa was in­cred­i­bly di­verse.

More than 90 types of aquatic in­ver­te­brates were found in the places where dams are planned, plus hun­dreds of fish, am­phib­ian and rep­tile species, some en­dan­gered and oth­ers en­demic to the Balkans.

Dams can un­ravel food chains, but the most well-known prob­lem with build­ing dams is that they block the paths of fish try­ing to mi­grate up­stream to spawn.

As pres­sure to build dams in­ten­si­fies in less de­vel­oped coun­tries, the op­po­site is hap­pen­ing in the U.S. and western Europe, where there’s a move­ment to tear down dams con­sid­ered ob­so­lete and en­vi­ron­men­tally de­struc­tive.

More than 1,600 have been dis­man­tled in the U.S., most within the past 30 years, ac­cord­ing to the ad­vo­cacy group Amer­i­can Rivers.

In Europe, the largest-ever re­moval be­gan this year in France, where two dams are be­ing torn down on Nor­mandy’s Selune River.

With so few wild rivers left around the globe, the Vjosa also is a valu­able re­source for study­ing river be­hav­ior.

“Sci­ence is only at the be­gin­ning of un­der­stand­ing how bio­di­ver­sity in river net­works is struc­tured and main­tained,” says re­searcher Gabriel Singer of the Leib­niz-In­sti­tute in Ger­many. “The Vjosa is a unique sys­tem.”


Rafters make their way on the Vjosa River in Al­ba­nia. The gov­ern­ment pro­poses to dam the Vjosa and its trib­u­taries.

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