In-depth | BiH

Captured rivers

Bosnians defend their rivers with their bodies.

By - 03.08.2020

In the village of Parsovići, Konjic, located to the southwest of Sarajevo, a group of locals gathered in early June to physically stop machines from passing toward the Neretvica river bed. It is at this place that Elektroprivreda BiH Public Company as an investor plans to construct as many as 15 small hydropower stations.

Later that day, Parsovići was visited by Edhem Bičakčić, the former prime minister of the Federation [of Bosnia and Herzegovina] and a member of its largest political subject, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), a Bosniak party in power for more than 25 years. Bičakčić was also the director of Elektroprivreda BiH, the company now investing in the Neretvica’s capture, and remains its consultant in the Parsovići project; at the same time, he is the owner of the business entrusted with machinery procurement.

The locals stopped him during his visit to tell him not to come back to the Neretvica.

By the end of June, numerous environmental organizations sent an open letter to the Energy Community and the European Commission, alerting them about the destruction of nature in BiH.

“Unfortunately, the action[s] of the Energy Community and the selective approach to the directives of the European Union contribute to the devastation of untamed rivers, insofar as BiH’s obligations regarding energy [produced] from renewable sources are not based on the wider EU framework for nature protection,” the letter reads. 

“In order to prevent misuse, which could and should have been foreseen, the obligations regarding strict nature protection had to be an integral part of the obligations regarding the energy transition,” the authors continue, noting that the 2018 EU Strategy for the Western Balkans does not include any environmental protection recommendations.

Bodies against machines

The community action in Parasovići was just one of the many efforts activists from BiH and the region have been putting in to save rivers and fight the construction of small hydropower stations. The brave women of Kruščica, a small community near Vitez, central Bosnia, were among the first to draw public attention to this issue in BiH: They blocked machinery from accessing a local bridge for more than 500 days in order to stop the construction of two mini stations.

Following their successful action, it seems as if the general public as well as the people who live in river valleys are realizing that activism might in fact make a change.

At the Doljanka river, people in surrounding villages protest for construction work to stop. Photo: Courtesy of Zaustavimo gradnju mHE na Doljanki.

In the vicinity of the town of Jablanica, members of the local communities situated along the Doljanka river tried to do the same after Eko-Vat, a Jablanica-based company owned by the famous Bosnian-born NBA player Mirza Teletović, announced the construction of two facilities on the Doljanka.

Although the construction of small power stations on the river Doljanka was presented as profitable for Jablanica in the beginning, residents of the surrounding villages voiced their discontent after the start of construction work by physically trying to stop the machines employed on the ground. They faced charges for obstructing the construction, later rejected by the court in Konjic.

They made an attempt to halt the construction through legal action, requesting the Cantonal Court in Sarajevo to cancel the corresponding environmental permit. However, even though the case was declared an emergency in early 2019, no hearings were held so far.

Being aware of this, activists kept an eye on the work in progress and often ended up in unpleasant situations, including when the investor’s security guards threatened them with physical violence.

More than 400 small power stations across BiH are currently either in the project development stage, in the process of obtaining relevant permits or already under construction.

The power stations on the Doljanka river were eventually completed and are now set to start operating as soon as it is approved by FERK (Regulatory Commission for Energy in the Federation of BiH). On July 23, FERK granted the status of an intervener to association “Za Doljanku” (For Doljanku), meaning that it is now able to take part in the discussion before the final operating permit is issued.

The activists saving the Doljanka river may not have succeeded in their quest to stop the construction work on a river that means life to them — that helps them maintain their lands and provides swimming spots where they relax every summer — but they have accomplished a lot in raising the awareness of Bosnian-Herzegovinian people in terms of enjoying a right to have their voice heard.

After the Doljanka and Kruščica, Neretvica, as well as the river Bjelava, running in the vicinity of the eastern Bosnian town of Foča, there has been mounting pressure from the public and NGOs to examine the high number of permits granted for the construction of such power stations. 

According to the Center for Environment, an environmental NGO, more than 400 small power stations across BiH are currently either in the project development stage, in the process of obtaining relevant permits or already under construction. A total of 106 such facilities have been put into operation.

The number grows in importance only after it is revealed that there are a total of 244 rivers in the entire country.

Activists fighting for the Neretvica river did not want to let investors destroy their river and surroundings. Photo: Courtesy of Pusti me da tečem.

A good reason to hope that this practice will be discontinued lies in the fact that the House of Representatives of the Federation of BiH — one of the two entities constituting the state — voted to ban construction of small power stations on June 23, having also backed a review of all the permits issued so far. The federal government has three months to draft a proposal aimed at amending relevant legislation so that the ban could be implemented in practice.

Huge gains for investors

Citizens of BiH believe that perseverance and protests hardly ever bear fruit, but the activists’ struggle for preserving rivers while preventing construction of mini hydropower stations is a rare example of civic activism yielding tangible results. This is why the parliament’s decision has come to be seen as a precedent as well as a victory for environmentalists. 

Nevertheless, some people are still skeptical about the implementation of the ban due to the interests of political parties, since activists maintain that it was [politicians] who made it possible for the permits to be granted in the first place.

The Federation of BiH introduced the construction ban since activists were physically disrupting machinery work on the ground.

According to various media outlets in BiH, it is no rare occurrence for party actors, or the people nurturing ties with them, to be investors benefiting the most from these facilities.

Our activist interviewees said that, in the case of small power stations, what we have at work is a combination of “defective legal framework, an incapacitated, inert mechanism of institutional control, and strong ties between certain business clans and party elites.”

The Federation of BiH introduced the construction ban since activists were physically disrupting machinery work on the ground. However, they warn that the fight to save rivers needs to be continued in the other entity as well — Republika Srpska.

Here lies another absurdity of BiH as a country divided: Only weeks after the federal parliament imposed the ban, the National Assembly of Republika Srpska turned down the motion for the same ban to be placed in this entity. The motion received 40 votes in favor, only two short of the majority it needed.

Following the voting session, the Center for Environment called for the resignation of Petar Đokić, the energy minister of Republika Srpska. The minister did not resign, nor did he respond to this demand, but the Energy Ministry announced that they “work in accordance with the law as one of the links in the permit granting process,” adding that they deemed the call for Đokić’s resignation unwarranted.

Meanwhile, the activists claim that investors negotiate concession agreements with government officials (at the municipal and ministerial levels), pointing out that the investors’ gains amount to millions of marks, while those of municipalities are often negligible.

The activists mention the example of Eko-Vat, the company that built a mini power station with a capacity of just under 5 MW on the Doljanka river. Our expert interviewees estimate that the investor’s annual earnings could reach 1.8 million marks, while the concession fee set to be collected by the Jablanica Municipality in the same time frame could be as low as 50,000 marks.

Concession agreements are tough to undo, Rasim Skomorac from the Center for Environment warns.

Sarajevan association Eko Akcija has been drawing attention to numerous environmental issues for years, including the construction of mini power stations, air pollution, landfills...

“Permit granting is merely a consequence of the real issue, and the real issue are the concession agreements investors and government officials have been signing for years now, all without actively involving citizens in the process,” Skomorac says.

“Potential unilateral termination of an (onerous) agreement is practically impossible without risking legal action from private companies, all at our collective expense.”

Sarajevan association Eko Akcija has been drawing attention to numerous environmental issues for years, including the construction of mini power stations, air pollution, landfills, etc. They suggest that environmental permits are “essentially rewritten,” serving to protect the investor’s interest instead of looking after the interests of nature and the environment.

Rasim Skomorac explains that construction of mini power stations is detrimental not only due to their water intake, but also since it entails construction of various other objects, ranging from kilometers of pipelines — often built along river beds — to overall infrastructure and access roads — which in turn necessitates deforesting activities — as well as constructing power houses, power lines, etc.

Struggle for rivers in Foča

Consequently, BiH is now a country where the construction of small hydropower stations is expected to be continued in one half of it and, should the parliament’s decision be upheld, prohibited in the other.

This is yet another contribution to the complicated permit granting procedures required for the construction of these facilities. The procedures of granting all the required permits are broken down by jurisdiction. To complicate matters even further, the Law on Environmental Protection of the Federation has not passed all parliamentary stages, even though it has been years now.

Split jurisdictions and confusion over who is to pass what permits has very much played into the investor’s hands. Local communities, municipalities, cantons, entities, etc., followed by various ministries, agencies and inspectorates — many institutions are involved in the chain.

About 400 mini hydropower plants are in the process of construction, while 106 more will be built on 244 Bosnian rivers. Photo: Courtesy of Zaustavimo gradnju mHE na Doljanki.

The situation is not much better in Republika Srpska. A complete procedure of getting all the required permits starts with obtaining the opinion of local communities. Afterward, line ministries and other institutions (Ministry of Spatial Planning, Construction and Ecology and Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management of Republika Srpska); if they deliver a favorable opinion, the Ministry of Energy and Mining of Republika Srpska opens a call for bids, ultimately granting the concession. 

As a construction ban is not even on the horizon in Republika Srpska, construction work are set to continue, having been started right in the midst of COVID-19 outbreak in BiH. The investor in question is a Foča-based company, Srbinjeputevi. 

Due to the doubts raised over the validity of the issued permits and activities undertaken, the activists of the Bjelava association from Foča and the Center for Environment filed a report to the Banja Luka Prosecutor’s Office in late April, claiming that the investor started the construction work illegally.

The claimants referred to the response from the Ministry of Spatial Planning, Construction and Ecology to the Center for Environment, where the Ministry stated that no administrative procedure for issuing the required permits had been initiated with regard to this undertaking.

The Prosecutor’s Office of Republika Srpska confirmed that they did receive the report, but that it was forwarded to the Trebinje District Prosecutor’s Office on April 29. The Trebinje Prosecution, on the other hand, has not responded to our question concerning the progress on the request.

Meanwhile, the work on the Bjelava river is ongoing.

It is a well-known scenario in BiH — a similar incident took place on the Doljanka river, near Jablanica.

The activists fighting to save the Doljanka requested that the Cantonal Court in Sarajevo to cancel the environmental permit granted by the federal Ministry of Environment and Tourism. A year and a half ago, the court declared the case an emergency, but no hearing has been held ever since. A mini power station was eventually built on the river and is set to start operating soon.

“This is exactly what we’ve come to learn from our experience on the ground,” Rasim Skomorac from the Center of Environment says.

“As a matter of principle, every report filed against investors is immediately delegated to the lower judiciary levels, whose capacity for appropriate response or even independent action might be rather limited.” 

“This is alarming, particularly in the context of fabricated public interest, where lucrative investments are sought to be justified,” Skomorac suggests.

“It shows that the authorities, whether they’re receiving instruction from their superiors or paying lip service, still do not acknowledge the due legitimacy of discontent expressed by a considerable number of people — which ought to bring about more than merely seeking political responsibility of the relevant actors,” he says, adding that legal action needs to be launched against the authorities, “or at least the corresponding disciplinary action, but it lacks a clear position of the law enforcement and judiciary on the protection of environment.”

“Hence, in a democratic society constantly questioning itself, activism is very much an indispensable business.”

Split jurisdiction

The situation pertaining to construction is “gravest” in the regions of Foča, Gacko and Romanija, according to the estimates from the Coalition for River Protection — an umbrella group of various NGOs helping the locals who stood up against construction work on the Bjelava river by providing them with legal advice and encouraging them to exert pressure themselves.

The coalition will monitor the work of the Government and Parliament of the Federation of BiH until new decisions are passed and law amended. They hope that it will amount to more than just the promises made before the nationwide general election scheduled for autumn. However, they believe that there is no reason for these decisions not to be made in Republika Srpska as well, particularly since the damage outweighs the benefits reaped by the society as a whole.

“Elektroprivreda Republike Srpska hasn’t got any plans to invest in mini hydropower stations because they’re aware of the fact that projects like these contribute little to substantial increases in electricity production,” the coalition’s Dragana Skenderija says, adding that it is absolutely clear that “private investors are favored through incentivizing efforts.”

“The National Assembly and the Government of Republika Srpska have to accept the recommendations and conclusions included in the declaration that suspended the plans for hydropower station construction; arrive at a decision about the moratorium on the construction of new ones, as well as about the removal of incentives aimed at producing electricity from mini hydropower stations; and finally turn to wind farms and solar power stations, all the while redirecting incentives towards civic energy,” Skenderija concludes.

The Environment and Tourism Ministry of the Federation of BiH (FMOIT) — whose head, Edita Šapo, signed a large number of environmental permits — insists that they are in touch with the nongovernmental sector on a daily basis. They also state that their proceedings are public and transparent.

The ministry notes that they have demanded a halt to the construction of small hydropower stations, but their demand is not in harmony with other institutions.

“The problem we are facing is that all construction approvals are issued by the lower government levels, while the federal level is presented with a fait accompli,”  the ministry’s adviser Seđad Muhić says.

However, construction of small hydropower stations is possible only if the relevant ministry grants an environmental permit.

“In the past decade and a half, FMOIT has granted more than 30 environmental permits enabling construction of small hydropower stations on our rivers; many of them are built in protected areas, like the mini power station at the mouth of the river Buna to the river Neretva,” Eko Akcija’s Anes Podić says.

“As far as we know, FMOIT has never refused to grant environmental permits needed for the construction of small hydropower stations. On the other hand, particularly as a result of their poor performance, there’s practically no legal framework to effectively protect natural assets on our rivers, which didn’t happen by accident.”

Naturally, the institutions have their own take on the situation on the ground.

With an evident administrative gap, the Center for Environment says for K2.0, the conclusion may as well be that the jurisdictional setup favors increased construction of small hydropower stations more than it would in the case the entire system was centralized, with one agency granting concession and the other monitoring its implementation.

“On top of that, what’s symptomatic is the lack of transparency in the mentioned processes, i.e. the issue of excessively short deadlines given for the involvement of the public concerned, if the public is even informed about any of these actions being in progress to begin with,” activists from the center point out.

Naturally, the institutions have their own take on the situation on the ground.

The Energy and Mining Ministry of Republika Srpska consults with other institutions, calls for bids and grants concessions in line with the Law on Concessions.

“NGOs generally oppose the construction of all mini hydropower stations that contribute to reduce harmful emissions, explaining that nature and watercourses are destroyed and fish stock endangered, while none of them deals with the impact of thermal power stations, larger industrial facilities or pollution stemming from car fumes,” the ministry says in a written response for K2.0, overlooking the fact that air pollution in BiH is mainly tackled by the non-governmental sector, although this is a different topic altogether. 

The way things are, the deal reached with the Energy Community obliges BiH to ensure that renewable sources are going to cover 40% of its total energy consumption by 2020, environmental organizations warn in the letter sent in June. 

“As much as the goal of increasing the share of renewable energy sources was justified in itself, the BiH [government], notorious for neglecting the environment, used it to actively support private investment in small hydropower plants,” they say in the continuation, adding that it is a very lucrative and risk-free business.

The parliament’s decision to ban construction of these facilities is just the beginning, they warn.

“Across the country, people are rising to save their rivers. Villagers stand guard day and night and armed exclusively with courage [stand] in front of bulldozers, money is collected on all sides for a legal fight, activists are advocating for an immediate and permanent ban on the construction of hydroelectric power plants.”

They conclude that BiH, often serving as an example of internal conflicts and tensions, is now united in resisting the destruction of its treasure, the only one largely untouched by the brutal privatization of public goods that has been taking place for the past three decades.K

Feature image: Courtesy of Adi Kebo / Ž