Tensions surge over Serbia’s small hydropower plants

Deep in the isolated forests of eastern Serbia a digger gouges a channel through the trees for a pipeline to siphon river water, as the coal-reliant country’s efforts to clean up its energy habit triggers a hydro “gold rush”.

The remote and sparsely-populated Bulgarian border region of Stara Planina, which means Old Mountain in Serbian, is famed for rugged peaks and pristine rivers cascading through dense woodlands, reports BSS/AFP.

But it is at the heart of a backlash against a rash of controversial small-scale hydro projects, which Serbia has encouraged in order to try to meet ambitious renewables targets as part of efforts to join the European Union. 

“You are not welcome” reads a signboard in the hamlet of Rakita. The message is aimed at hydropower labourers, who are protected by guards as they work to lay the pipes that will divert up to 90 percent of the local river’s water to an energy-generating turbine. 

The rural community views the Raktika river, which runs through the village itself, as a lifeline and fears the plant will devastate fish stocks, cause wells to dry up and deprive livestock of water.

Police intervene regularly to avert clashes.

Rakita locals have spent two years fighting against the power plant, holding protests in Belgrade or closer to home in the town of Pirot. They are not alone.

The battle over energy policy is sweeping through much of the Balkans, where campaigners say the proliferation of small-scale hydropower projects threaten the future of some of Europe’s most unspoilt waterways and the vast swathes of flora and fauna they support. Environmental group RiverWatch has said there is a “gold rush atmosphere” in the region over the hydropower projects, with some 3,000 planned, many in otherwise protected areas.

“It would be like destroying cathedrals to build shopping malls to make more money,” said RiverWatch founder Ulrich Eichelmann recently in Belgrade.

– Coal habit –

Serbia relies on coal for some 70 percent of its electricity, with hydropower accounting for around a quarter. Wind and solar power currently provide only a tiny fraction of its energy.

But the country, which is negotiating EU accession, is keen to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and has signed up to an ambitious renewables target of 27 percent by next year.