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Small Hydropower Plants Cause the Disappearance of Wildlife in Rivers

The latest research provides irrefutable evidence of the harmful effects of small hydropower plants on rivers in Serbia

Once a small hydropower plant is built on the river, the river itself and the entire living world in it are irreversibly changed. This fact is indicated by the latest hydrobiological research conducted by the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics in Kragujevac and WWF, whose goal is to show the impact of built small hydropower plants, as well as the potential impact of planned hydropower plants on river biodiversity in Serbia. The results are worrying and speak of possible far-reaching consequences, both for nature and for people.
During the year 2020, research was conducted on nine rivers in western and central Serbia, including Crni Rzav and Ribnica, which flow through the "Zlatibor" Nature Park. Two small hydropower plants built on these rivers passed a total of 9.2 kilometres of rivers through pipes. Hydrobiological analyzes were performed in accordance with the recommendations of the EU Water Framework Directive and included analysis of physical and chemical parameters of water, benthic algae communities, aquatic macroinvertebrates and fish, with special reference to protected and strictly protected species at national and/or international level. This is also the first analysis in Serbia that includes an analysis of the benthic algae community that is at the core of the food chain in rivers. They are the foundation of the overall diversity of the living world in rivers and play an important role in the process of circulating matter and maintaining the health and cleanliness of rivers.

In order to understand the real impact of these small hydropower plants on rivers, samples were collected at multiple locations. During the research, disturbing habitat changes were observed in terms of a drastic reduction in the amount of water and excessive algae production, which could have affected the reduction of the richness, number and biomass of aquatic macroinvertebrates. Based on the current situation, a drastic decline in diversity was also observed at the site below the second mini hydropower plant, which may be a consequence of frequent changes in water levels in the investigated part of the stream. It should be especially emphasized that the crayfish whose presence was recorded at the mentioned localities in 2018 and which according to the IUCN Red List is considered an endangered species, was not noticed during the research.
"The results we have achieved are really alarming. Although previous studies have indicated the great damage that the construction of small hydropower plants has on rivers and their biodiversity, this comprehensive study provides irrefutable evidence. Crni Rzav is an example of a river that, under the pressure of small hydropower plants, has completely lost the diversity of the living world and its visual identity, which has changed its natural flow and the possibility of mitigating the consequences of climate change. In addition, the disappearance of water along almost 10 km of the stream brings into question the survival of wider ecosystems", said Natasa Milivojevic from WWF Adria.
Both small hydropower plants are financed by the European Investment Bank (EIB), i.e. through a loan from the financial intermediary Crédit Agricole Srbija AD. In addition to these two already built, the construction of another hydropower plant on Crni Rzav is planned.
Although the European Investment Bank withdrew from direct financing of many harmful projects for the construction of small hydropower plants, the lack of transparency and monitoring of the distribution of money through financial intermediaries resulted in the destruction of many rivers, not only in Serbia but throughout the region.
"The European Investment Bank (EIB) must make its operations through financial intermediaries completely transparent, at least for projects that can have significant negative impacts on the environment, such as hydropower plants. Furthermore, if projects are planned in sensitive and protected areas, or their protection is still planned, the EIB must require an environmental and socio-economic assessment and must be involved in monitoring the implementation of the project. For example, in the case of these two small hydropower plants, the negative impact on the rivers is extremely large - about 10 kilometres of rivers were sacrificed, all in order to build facilities with a total production capacity of only 2 MW ", concluded Andrej Ralev from Bankwatch.
Today, many researches are available that speak about the ecological, socio-economic and human damage of the construction of small hydropower plants in Serbia. Serious changes are needed, both at the national level, through stopping incentives for all types of small hydropower plants and a complete ban on their construction, as well as at the international level. Financial institutions such as the European Investment Bank should review their operations, tighten the criteria for approving the financing of harmful projects, such as the construction of small hydropower plants, and insist on measures to improve the environmental status of rivers destroyed by their loans.
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