Will The Last Wild Rivers in Europe be Dammed?

Patagonia and local activists dig in their heels to protect pristine Balkan watersheds.


The Balkans are home to some of the last relatively pristine and untouched waterways in Europe, including Albania’s Vjosa River, the only remaining undammed river on the continent. The ecosystems supported by these free-flowing rivers draining the Balkan, Rhodope, Pindus, and Dinaric Alps mountain ranges are home to animals like the endangered Balkan lynx and the enormous, threatened Danube Salmon. Scientific surveys suggest this is easily the healthiest, cleanest concentration of waterways in Europe.

But a rush of planned and in-construction hydroelectric power-generating dams across the region, some 3,000 in total, threaten to massively disrupt these Balkan river systems. The vast majority of dams proposed in the Balkans are “diversion” dams, which divert water from their natural courses, depleting rivers of water and draining some entirely. Nearly 120 of those dams are to be built in otherwise protected national parks.

Many locals are deeply unhappy about dams they consider destructive to their river systems and ways of life and have been vigorously protesting for years. A grassroots campaign called Save the Blue Heart of Europe, composed of people like anglers, paddlers, local mayors, and environmental activists of all kinds has been underway since 2013 in the Balkans, fighting against Big European banks that have moved in to provide funding for the dams.

Patagonia has been involved for a couple years now too, stepping into the fray in a big way with their Blue Heart of Europe campaign. The company is teaming up with boots-on-the-ground locals to circulate a petition to try to sway European banks away from investing in more Balkan dams. Something like 727 million euros have already been committed to building the new power stations though, so it’s clear more struggles are to come.

The Save the Blue Heart of Europe movement argues that, while dams are touted as clean, renewable energy projects, better and more modern methods exist to provide clean energy without obliterating crucial watersheds.

No stranger to documenting struggles to remove dams—their 2015 film “DamNation” won a bushel of film festival awards—Patagonia has made a new film chronicling the fight to save these Balkan rivers called “Blue Heart.” It’s beginning a Balkan tour soon, with more stops to come. Check out the trailer below.

 

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