The Neretvica River in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been at the center of a struggle against small hydropower dams for 15 years, but despite the protracted battle, local activists are not wavering in their commitment to keep the river wild. The fight has been filled with both disappointment and victories for activists. It’s a fight that extends beyond the banks of the Neretvica, uniting people across the country to stand up for their local rivers.
“We will not stop,” says Ibrahim Turak, one of the activists and leader of a large protest in Neretvica earlier this summer. “As long as the investors’ motives to build keeps gaining strength, our motives and inspiration to defend our river will keep gaining even more strength and momentum.”
The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina has come tantalizingly close to enacting protections for the country’s rivers, only to fail to permanently implement resolutions before the deadlines to do so pass.
In November 2020, it seemed as if, finally, the federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina was going to heed the demands of activists across the country to protect the country’s rivers, many of which are the last remaining free-flowing rivers in Europe. Following local protests and the pleas of a coalition of international freshwater conservationists, the government announced that it would no longer provide subsidies that support the construction of small hydropower plants, as the first step.
The new bylaws, which took effect in January 2021, also redirected those subsidies to renewable energy sources like solar and wind. The measures likely prevented, or at least delayed, the construction of 162 small hydropower projects on 79 rivers. They also protected endangered species that depend on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s rivers, which help make up a watershed referred to as the Blue Heart of Europe.
But just eight-and-half months later, the bylaws seem to be languishing in the parliament, which failed to adopt the pending law on Electrical Power using a so-called “Urgent procedure.” If adopted, the law would have permanently banned construction of hundreds of planned small hydro projects. Instead, the parliament pushed the law to the full House of Peoples to follow the regular procedure route, which can take years.
“The ball is in their court now,” says Turak. “The Federation Parliament missed an opportunity to adopt the Law on Electricity in April 2021, which could have prevented new concessions and saved many rivers. They can still do this. Our message for the politicians is they can stall as long as they like, that’s exactly why we have to defend rivers ourselves.”
Protests for the Neretvica
On June 14, more than 700 activists went to the Neretvica River to defend it from yet another investor’s attempt to commence the construction work. It was the latest in a string of large protests organized over a year-and-a-half.
“Amassing this kind of support for one local community and one local river is something that has not been seen in BiH before,” explains Turak.
A February 2020 protest attracted 1,200 people and collected 2,300 signatures on a petition to ban small hydropower dams, adding to the 3,000 signatures collected online. That surge of support prompted activists to establish Let Me Flow Freely, a local organization to protect the Neretvica River. Let Me Flow Freely now has a broad network of activists it can call on for help at any time.
“We have raised so much awareness now that we can get 300 to 500 people to step in front of the bulldozers on a moment’s notice,” says Turak. “This last protest...we proved that. We stopped them again. We had 700-plus people stopping the convoy of machines and defending the river with our bodies. Forty to 50 of them were our friends, activists from all over BiH representing other local river movements.”
An uncertain future
After the large demonstration in June, the Federation Parliament still did not vote for the Law on Electricity to ban new small hydropower plants during the session. It was a blow to activists, followed by more discouraging news in July.
Osman Ćatić, the municipality head of Konjic, a city where the Neretvica River flows, sided with the local utility company, the major investor in the proposed small hydropower plants, during a meeting. The news came as a shock to activists and the entire local community. According to activists with Atelier for Community Transformation, Ćatić had previously pledged his support for local activists and denounced small hydropower plants. Going one step further, at the meeting with the investor in the project, he vowed to use police force to squelch any protests that block construction access to the Neretvica River.
Although the loss of support has been disappointing for activists, it isn’t surprising and is the latest example of local government officials being less than transparent.
In 2007 the Konjic Municipal Council voted to approve the small hydropower plants on the Neretvica River without holding a public hearing or involving the local community. Turak was on the council at the time and voted against the proposal, which anticipated laying 34 kilometers of concrete pipes and building 15 small hydropower dams on the Neretivca. The dams would have collectively produced only 24.5 megawatts of electricity, a modest amount.
The investor in the dams, Elektoprivreda, the public utility company, initially sought funding from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) for the hydropower project, but the bank decided not to fund it based on an environmental impact study published in 2017. The study found that the river was one of the only habitats left for several endangered species including the Adriatic minnow and White-clawed Crayfish.
Undeterred, Elektoprivreda commissioned its own environmental study, which conversely determined that construction could move ahead, starting with two small hydropower plants.
“All these years, a revolt had been tinkering in us, and then it happened in February 2020, when the beginning of works on the construction of the SHPs on the Neretvica was announced,” says Turak. “This was a sign of alarm that set in motion a true local resistance movement and the battle to save our river.”
As a result of a legal battle being waged by Let Me Run Freely, activists recently learned that the municipal council vote and environmental impact assessments were invalid all along. Separately, the Ministry of Energy and Mining confirmed in a communiqué to Let Me Run Freely that it had never issued an energy permit for any project on the Neretvica River.
“What this means is that the whole SHP project was illegitimate from the start!” exclaims Turak.
In August, the Cantonal Ministry of Interior agreed. They determined that the permits for the two small hydropower plants were issued illegally.
Electricity, water and climate change
Turak now wonders if the rush to build small hydropower plants on the Neretvica River is not only about electricity. He worries the small hydropower plants may want to eventually transition from selling electricity to selling the water from the river, once the river is, in effect, no longer publicly controlled. As the planet is confronted with the effects of climate change in the next decade and beyond, access to water may be critical, and may be more lucrative than creating electricity.
“This fight is actually the fight for clean water sources, and I think it’s safe to say that the wars for clean water have already begun,” says Turak. “We are actually fighting for our local community to have control over its water in the future, so that future generations do not have to beg to have a little water. We cannot let private interests take control over water, we cannot let them do this, which means we cannot afford to be afraid.”
Investing in the wild
Even though the fight to protect the Neretvica is far from finished, activists have a vision for what Bosnia and Herzegovina could look like with free and wild rivers.
“Ultimately, we dream big and want to see the Neretvica Valley become a permanently protected nature reserve,” says Turak. “We have the beautiful Jablanicko lake here, rafting, we have the Neretvica River, we have the Zec mountain--the late Professor Sulejman Redzic always said that ‘there are more medicinal herbs in one square meter on Zec than anywhere else in the world’--sustainable tourism has so much potential here.”
Activists would also like a nature reserve to include an original renovated mill that would show how communities have lived sustainably on the Neretvica River for generations and recount some of the history the river has been a part of.
In the meantime, activists are helping people from Neretvica reconnect with their village’s namesake river through an initiative called “15 beaches instead of 15 SHPs.”
Top photo: Neretvica River by Amel Emric.