What is wrong with hydropower and how to fix it?


Living Planet Index des WWF: Süßwasserlebensräume sind weltweit am stärksten bedroht.

Living Planet Index of the WWF: fresh water systemes are the most threatened habitats globally

Rivers are the lifelines of our planet. Hardly any other habitat is as rich in species. And no other habitat is as threatened: globally, rivers and their natural floodplains are more under pressure than forests or marine ecosystems for instance. Naturally, this has an impact on riverine biodiversity. Nowhere else in the world is the loss of biodiversity as acute as in rivers. The prime reason for this poor record is the high number of dams.

Dams have in every case tremendous negative effects on the environment: rivers turn into reservoirs and below the dam their discharge and dynamic is altered enormously. Dams not only hinder the water from flowing and the species from migrating, but also block the transport of sediments – the journey of gravel and sand from the mountains to the ocean. As a result, rivers are modified on huge stretches; the effects of large dams are noticeable even 1,000 kilometres downstream. The lack of sediments – by the way – is among the reasons for beach and coastline erosion.

Die Lage eines geplanten Staudamms im Mavrovo Nationalpark – dieses artenreiche Gebiet soll im Stausee ertrinken. Foto: Ulrich Eichelmann

The projected dam construction site in the Mavrovo National Park – this species-rich area is to be flooded. Photo: Ulrich Eichelmann

Nevertheless, our energy demand needs to be met and the utilisation of alternative sources of energy (including rivers) for this purpose seems logical. However, hydropower development must urgently take ecological and social aspects into account. Currently, this is neither the case on the Balkan Peninsula, nor anywhere else in the world.

Dam projects are proposed wherever they are most beneficial economically. The consequences for the environment and often also for local communities is hardly ever taken into consideration. Regulations such as the environmental impact assessment (EIA) have almost no affect on the dam projects. In reality, EIA are conducted to merely mitigate the damage. Only a very few hydropower projects worldwide have been stopped due to EIAs or other regulations. Even highly controversial projects such as the Ilisu dam in Turkey, Belo Monte in Amazonia, or the two projected dams in the Mavrovo National Park in Macedonia passed the EIA.


Rules for the construction of dams/hydropower plants

Dam on Neretva downstream of Kojic. Photo: A. Vorauer

Dam on Neretva downstream of Kojic. Photo: A. Vorauer

Imagine building a house: one cannot just build anywhere one pleases – it has to be done according to a land-use plan. Once the land-use plan is taken into account, one also has to abide by building regulations (technical requirements such as proper insulation).

The construction of dams must undergo a similar procedure: we need a spatial plan which defines where dams are acceptable and where not. The development of such a plan for rivers requires no witchcraft; all it needs is to determine river basins where the construction of new hydropower plants is off-limits due to ecological, cultural, and social aspects. So-called no-go areas for hydroelectric development need to be established. Outside these areas dams may be built as long as they are in accordance with state-of-the-art technology.

We need a masterplan for rivers – for the Balkans, for Europe, and globally.

Sadly, however, this is hardly the case in reality. We are experiencing a gold rush atmosphere in the hydropower sector in which projects are pushed trough at the sacrifice of the environment – even in nature reserves such as the Mavrovo National Park.

And yet, the discrepancy between nature conservation and energy demand would be easy to overcome.


3 basic rules for a sustainable approach to energy production and land-use

The Vjosa River in Albania - one of the last living wild rivers in Europe. Photo: Romy Durs

The Vjosa River in Albania – one of the last living wild rivers in Europe. Photo: Romy Durst

I Energy Concept: An energy concept shall determine how much energy is needed and from which sources the energy shall come from (how much shall be derived from sun, wind, gas, hydropower, etc.)

In regards to hydropower
II River Masterplan: A land-use plan for rives that defines no-go areas for hydroelectric development needs to be established; that is, the construction of dams can only be permitted in approved sections.

For projected hydropower projects within the approved sections
III State-of-the-art Technology: New dams may only be constructed if in accordance with state-of-the-art technology.

In due consideration of these three rules, a modern energy and conservation concept must abide by the following order:

I How much and whereby?
II Where?
III How?

In reality, the discourse about hydropower projects almost always starts in phase III; that is, people start with discussing the “how”. This is like already discussing the technical details when building a house while its intended location is not yet approved.

We do not lack the know-how of resolving the problem – we lack the political will to do so!