It was the morning of August 3, shortly after celebrating the day of Saint Ilija at an altitude of 2,173 meters beside Livadh Lake, that local postman Stanko Cvetković was detained by police.
He had spent many days at the top of the wild and beautiful Sharr mountains throughout his life, as he also lived in the hills and guarded sheep before settling down in the village of Štrpce. There, Stanko’s little wooden cabin sits in the lush green field at the foot of the mountain, a few meters upstream from the Obe Reke, where the Kaludjerka and Bolovanka streams become one before joining their big brother the Lepenc river.
For more than a year and a half, his place became a refuge for local villagers against the destruction of Kosovo’s rivers.
And on that day, the stronghold was finally breached.
“I got a call in the middle of the day,” says Elizabeta Cvetković, the postman’s wife, who had been picking raspberries all morning. “‘Is it true that Stanko has been arrested?’”
It was news to her, but Elizabeta knew exactly why. She didn’t go to the local police station, where her husband would be held and questioned for hours. Instead, she headed straight to their field, where a bulldozer had already begun digging a path for big machinery, trucks and pipes between their wooden cabin and the Kaludjerka stream.
For months, through winter snow and summer heat, Štrpce villagers had been protecting the access to this land, a land Stanko claims as his property. They knew that once the bulldozers broke through, large pipes could be installed along the riverbed of Kaludjerka up to a yet-to-be-built dam within the Sharr Mountains National Park territory.
There was a lot at stake.
Alone but not helpless, Elizabeta explains how she jumped right in front of the giant yellow construction vehicle and yelled at the worker inside: “Stop the machine, now!”
The bulldozer moved its arm. The woman held her ground. She repeated the command. Eventually they left — the fight extended for another day.
Elizabeta laughs now as she recreates her own act of resistance, but tears run through this home too at the daily destruction of the river.
The plight of citizens fighting for their rivers against the arrival of the hydropower industry in their town, isn’t a simple one. Hydropower, which uses the force of water from the river to produce electricity, is promoted as green energy; but all too often, it seems its implementation is anything but that.
The battle for Kosovo’s rivers has revealed the best and the worst of humankind — men have cried and women have stood their ground as people have bared their souls and clung onto their futures by refusing to give up on what they say cannot be owned. But just like the stone of the riverbanks, their dignity has been slowly eroded by the powerful forces of greed, scarcity and fear.
The question that rumbles through the mountain valley: What is left of a home when even the water that runs underneath your soil — the same water that gives life to fruit, quenches your thirst and washes your dirt — is taken away?
Before the defeat
In Biti e Poshtme village (Biti), a few minutes drive down the road from the center of Štrpce and still within the same municipality, a painful silence reigns on a sunny September morning.
It’s the end of summer and water trickles gently along the riverbed, revealing piles of plastic trash that has been dragged downstream, and a dead dog.
The Lepenc river runs through this southern village of Kosovo, on its way to North Macedonia. A bridge stands over the river and serves as the main entry to Biti. A wide new gravel track covering pipes runs alongside the riverbed, replacing the green mesh of trees and bushes that until recently accompanied the river.
Just like further upstream in Štrpce, a similar cause has been fought.
But the environmental destruction hasn’t been for want of resilient local resistance. Back in October 2019, images of villagers from Biti went viral. Some showed villagers lying in hospital beds; others showed police using force against them despite the peaceful nature of their protests, as they blocked access to the bulldozers.
Twenty people, including women and children, needed medical attention after the police action, which included the use of pepper spray.
The news, for once, brought the village’s fight to the very center of public attention.
When K2.0 visited in March of this year, just a few days before the COVID-19 pandemic saw everyone locked up in their houses, the machine’s access was still blocked right at the bridge. In the backroom of the village grocery shop, which stands beside a football pitch just a few meters along the road from a communal stone sink, neighbors shared daily updates.
The smoke of cigarettes and burning wood filled the air of the little space behind the market shelves. In the absence of a bar in the village, Albanians and Serbs gathered together, squeezing onto a small sofa or on stools and chairs in front of a small stove.
“I went to four psychological therapy sessions,” said Edita Tahiri, a 27-year-old economics graduate, from behind the cashbox at the market, her family business.
Together with relatives and other villagers, she had taken part in the regular protests and encounters with police in Biti since 2015. But they had taken a toll on her, physically and mentally.
“I couldn’t sleep or stay calm, I was constantly reliving everything,” she said, adding that since the October 2019 protests that had ended with police tussles, her fourth vertebra had been pushing her nerves in her lower back and she has been taking infusions and medicine to get better.
“If they called a protest tomorrow, I don’t know if I’d go,” she said. “I am scared.”
Edita’s words contrasted with the remaining drops of optimism shared in the backroom of the market that day, just as citizens of Biti had been awarded the Democracy prize by the Kosovar Civil Society Foundation for their fight to protect the rivers.
The residents decided to split the 5,000 euros prize money among Albanians and Serbs in the village to help their communities. They had already shared the struggle at the riverbank and even cells at the police station after being put in detention for hours after the protests.
Agron Rushiti, a 37-year-old law graduate who works in a car insurance office, had just finished fixing the village’s small cemetery with part of the award money when K2.0 met him.
“The most painful memory I have is welcoming them into town,” Agron said, as he recalled the first time he saw workers around the river back in 2015. “They came directly with bulldozers and everything, and we thought they were coming to clean the river because that’s what they said.”
Until things took a turn.
One day one of the workers was eating with some of the local residents, and said: “I’m really sorry for you because you look like good people, but this water will go into tubes.”
Back in 2013, the Ministry of Environment had awarded an environmental consent to the Kosovo-based company Matkos Group for the construction of a new hydropower plant called HC Viça and another four hydropower plants, all projects along the Lepenc river. The plan for HC Viça involved building a concrete dam somewhere in the center of Štrpce and installing a 5km long pipeline along the Lepenc — passing through Biti — downstream to a hydro station.
According to legislation that regulates such construction, the investing company was obliged to organize two public debates with the affected community and inform them of the debates. But locals claimed that Biti residents were not aware of any public debate to inform them about the planned construction.
Matkos Group has argued that two public debates were actually organized in accordance with the law, the first in October 2012, 24km away from Biti in Kaçanik, and another in May 2013, 15km away in Brezovica.
However, no residents were present at the debates, only institutional authorities. Despite the lack of input or discussion with the local communities, the Ministry of Environment gave the final green light, paving the way for the Energy Regulatory Office to authorize the construction of HC Viça in 2014.
Residents soon began the first of around 200 protests to take place since the beginning of construction work in the village in 2015.
Agron’s name always comes up when speaking about the protests in Biti. Like many other families around Lepenc and its tributaries, his family income relies on their corn crops and fruits such as raspberries and blueberries. Residents harvest their hundreds of square meters of fruit over the summer to sell it to larger producers, who distribute it across the country.
There are berries everywhere on each side of the road up to Štrpce, both wild and cultivated, and on the banks of Lepenc and its tributaries. Many residents have installed their own individual irrigation systems for their crops using water from the river, and have their wells nearby as well.
Not only is the river the source of water for these crops, but also for the water they drink at home.
On March 13 of this year, when then Prime Minister Albin Kurti confirmed the first COVID-19 cases in Kosovo, he also asked all citizens to wash their hands frequently. At that point, Biti residents were into their fifth month without drinking water.
They complain that work during the construction of hydropower plants and dams across the river has regularly left the water coming through their taps muddy and unusable, and they fear a possible future with a dry river.
“Our position here is that we’re dependent,” Agron says. “If the river is affected, our wells are affected, our cultivation is affected.”
Since March of this year, Agron says many villagers have taken turns filling up bottles at a fountain almost 5km away near Firajë village, or further up the road toward Brezovica.
The struggle has also taken a personal toll.
On his 36th birthday on August 16 last year, a group of police officers waited for Agron at his home to question him about his role in the protests.
Over the last five years since they began protesting the pipeline construction through their town, whether in front of their municipality building or at the construction site, many residents of Biti share stories of having been called to give statements at the police station. Not just in Štrpce, a few minutes away by car, but also in Ferizaj and even over 70km away in Prishtina.
Refusing to go when summoned has bigger consequences, such as warnings, fines or even arrests.
“The pressure we have endured is unquantifiable, it is so costly,” Agron says. “This stress destroys your life.”
And yet again, the fight for the river is not only with the police, investors or institutions, but with one’s own morals and survival.
“Even my own child isn’t thinking of her games anymore but of where is dad…” says Agron, reflecting on the many hours spent in discussions by the river and actions to hold the front.
“These five years, it’s been a fight. But when there is a war, there are two countries fighting one another. Here we haven’t even known who we’re confronting, who we are bothering, who is sending us into this situation. What do they have to do with us? There’s no more life here.
“Remember this, if the water goes into tubes, this will be the Sahara — just sand.”
And nine months later in July 2020, as all eyes were on Kosovo’s newly formed government and the citizens’ morale was wounded amid rising pandemic numbers, the machines finally managed to break through this village before an audience of residents and a few activists. By this point, they were powerless.
It was over.
Why the rivers?
There are more than 4,000 hydropower plant projects planned in the Balkans and Turkey alone, making it the region with the highest projected development of such infrastructure in Europe.
Like those in Štrpce and Biti, the majority of developments both in Kosovo and the wider region are classed as ”small hydropower,” a term used to describe plants that produce less than 10 MW per hour.
In studies commissioned between 2006 and 2009 by the then Ministry of Energy and Mines in Kosovo, 77 locations were identified for the potential construction of small hydropower plants across Kosovo’s rivers. The majority are in areas of special natural value, with 17 of them on the Lepenc river alone.
It was a time to promote “green energy,” and as a member of the Energy Community Treaty, Kosovo had committed to producing 25% of the energy consumed by citizens from sources labelled as “renewable” — including hydro, wind, solar or biomass — by 2020. Kosovo decided to emphasize energy produced through hydropower over the other potential sources.
This decision came despite Kosovo having the poorest water resources in the Western Balkans, with only 1,600 cubic meters per household per year; North Macedonia has double that, and Albania is very rich in terms of water supply, with 13,000 cubic meters per household per year.
The current Ministry of Environment told K2.0 that it has already reached its 25% target.
But many experts have raised concerns over the cost to the environment and local communities of the small hydropower plants, especially considering their low energy production. At the end of the day, of all the renewable electricity produced in the country, only around 5.5% came from hydropower — large and small — in the past year.
There are at least 18 active hydropower plants in the country and around 20 in the process of becoming functional.
Such developments are gaining the attention of citizens across the country. In November 2019, a petition to halt hydropower construction and review the country’s capacity to produce electricity through its rivers received 28,000 signatures.
The processes surrounding small hydropower plants in the country have been so dubious that a parliamentary commission was set up in August of this year to investigate licensing, constructing, operating, and managing hydropower plants in Kosovo.
It does not come without grounds for questioning.
Another region facing hydropower issues has been Deçan, in the west of Kosovo, where the Austrian company KelKos, a subsidiary of Kelag, has been operating three hydropower plants for the past few years across the Lumbardhi river without the mandatory environmental permit.
However, Kosovo’s Energy Regulatory Office — which is in charge of licensing — allowed the company to operate.
It is a procedure that civil and environmental advocates considered illegal, and they have even raised concerns with the Austrian government about the alleged intervention of Austrian diplomats to influence the licensing process. The Austrian government has declined to comment to K2.0, on the basis that a parliamentary investigation is taking place in Kosovo.
In the meantime, the company has filed defamation lawsuits against activists Adriatik Gacaferri and Shpresa Loshaj for publicly denouncing alleged wrongdoing in Deçan.
Advocates of natural resources have considered the move a way to intimidate any voices wanting to speak up in the future, with similar lawsuits issued against activists throughout the region. Meanwhile activists in other areas, such as those from Štrpce and Biti, look at Deçan as an example of how the law is, or is not, being upheld when it comes to hydropower in Kosovo.
Putting in the footwork
It’s a cold November morning in 2019 and Fabien Téchené, a French environmental scientist living in Kosovo, is driving his car and occasionally referring to a map of the various hydropower plants and dams planned across the 53km of the Lepenc river that is within the territory of Kosovo.
He has mapped the developments himself, based on checking the reality on the ground — the coordinates for the construction work provided by the investors in the official documentation just don’t match.
“This document is a joke,” he says repeatedly with a hint of anger, referring to the Environmental Impact Assessment provided by Matkos Group, which is responsible for some of the main hydropower projects in the Lepenc valley and Sharri mountains.
The document is not just some random piece of paper, but it is supposed to serve as a blueprint of what will be done, where, how, and the impact it will have on the environment. Based on this document, permits are granted or declined.
For experts from the field, the document acknowledges that there will be an impact on the river, but it fails to provide any assessment of the specific social and environmental impact and consequences from the construction of dams, pipes and plants across Lepenc. Regardless, the Ministry of Environment approved the document, opening up the way for Matkos Group to continue with other licensing processes.
The company director, Labinot Vitia, told K2.0 that despite the critics, they believe the work has a positive impact, because they will be removing trash from the river. He said that any harm to the riverbed will be short-term. He did not acknowledge any of the long-term damage to the larger ecosystem.
“A hydropower plant is an obstacle,” Fabien says. “Even if you do everything to mitigate the impact, it will still modify the ecosystem locally and impact the transport of sediments, modify the water regime downstream and modify the morphology of the riverbed downstream, and more. It is even more true when it is built in a national park, on a super small stream.”
Fabien formerly worked on the hydrological management of the River Loire in Orléans, France, monitoring the river and overseeing two large dams. He now works as a freshwater officer at WWF Adria, a large international environmental organization where one of the things they look at is the protection of rivers. A part of Fabien’s work has involved looking at the way hydropower plants are moving forward in Kosovo and the potential risks to the rivers.
As part of his observations, Fabien is tracking down whether the Environmental Impact Assessment matches the reality.
He looks at the dams’ fish tracks in the dams, mandatory canals that allow the transit of fish across the dam’s wall.
In the visits with him to the dams under-construction in the Lepenc valley, the canals have often not been finished; all too often they have little, if any, water.
Fabien looks for impact on the environment, such as an increased density of sewage water due to a lower natural river flow.
Near a dam downstream close to Kaçanik, part of a small hydropower plant operated by the Kosovo-based company Hidroenergji, the smell is slightly rotten. A resident working around the river tells him that the river has been flowing rather low, and that he is no longer irrigating his crops with water from the river because there is noticeably more sewage water. He says there are fewer fish, too.
“The problem with a small hydropower plant is that often many dams are built one after another,” Fabien explains.
“If it were just one, built and operating according to best environmental practices, the impact could be considered minor. But the problem is that they are neither built nor operating according to the best practices. This ultimately means that you may now have about 30km of pipe along the river, on and off. In the long term this really affects fish migration, for example, and it can cause a great loss of biodiversity — eventually the temporary loss of the river itself.”
Now, there are at least five hydropower plants under construction along the Lepenc river, each of them with one or several dams across the river or its tributaries. Dams, to put it most simply, are walls that block the natural flow of the river and accumulate water that is then diverted into pipelines.
According to legislation, hydro operators can take up to 70% of the river flow, but must leave the rest to flow naturally.
The pipeline will bring the river flow into turbines at the hydropower station, normally located downstream on a river. The higher up the mountain the dams are located, the faster the flow of water into the turbine and the more electricity can potentially be produced.
What many environmental experts point out about a small hydropower plant is that as small as it sounds, its impact can be immense while also not responding to consumption needs.
“[Large-scale] hydropower is known to be green, but the capacity of these [small] dams to [accumulate] water is very low; they don’t have storage and so they don’t really respond to consumption peaks, like morning time,” Fabien explains.
“Without storage, you don’t have management where you respond to consumption needs … They just produce like wind turbines: If there is wind, there is wind.”
And if there is wind — or water, in this case — there is money. Each single megawatt produced, whether it is used or it goes to waste, will go to the grid and be paid for. That is based on a system of feed-in-tariffs: fixed tariffs that work as incentives for companies to produce from sources classified as “renewable.” Kosovo currently pays small hydropower operators a fixed amount of money per megawatt. Recently, the Energy Regulatory Office has questioned the efficacy of such tariffs, suggesting that a change be made.
So far, however, coupled with institutional guarantees to buy electricity from hydropower investors for 10 to 12 years, investing in a hydropower station has proved a safe bet.
Will there be hope?
Helena Poučki walks up the old riverbed from Obe Reke, passing by Stanko’s and Elizabeta’s wooden cabin, following the pipeline on a Saturday in September. Her black dog Ninja follows her through the mud, leaving behind the same location where Elizabeta blocked a bulldozer just weeks earlier — it had only delayed the inevitable.
A fortnight on since Helena’s last visit, construction work on this part of the river has progressed.
It continues, daily.
Helena has been visiting Štrpce frequently over the past year; she has been putting in the footwork, meeting with neighbors, observing work on the ground, tracing documentation with the institutions, and trying to put a legal case together that could result in the protection of the river.
Born in Bečej, in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina, she arrived in Kosovo in 2010 to work with the Roma community in Plementina, where residents live with constant water and electricity cuts, in proximity to Kosovo’s biggest air polluter, the lignite-burning Kosovo A power plant, and the very contaminated Sitnica river.
Hoping to change awareness around the environment and among disempowered communities, she co-founded the organization GAIA five years ago, and now lives in an eco-village project in Ranilug’s countryside, in southeastern Kosovo. She dreams of creating a living space where a different model of a fair economy, social engagement, and human relationships with nature are possible.
It’s the beginning of September and Helena is visiting local residents in Štrpce who still hold on to her as a last hope. When something happens there, her phone burns.
She is not a lawyer but a biologist, and she has not found the answer yet as to why this community has been left alone in their fight. For weeks, together with her colleagues and a few other activists, they have been trying to engage lawyers who could build up their case for stopping new hydropower constructions in the area.
The old riverbed of Kaludjerka paves the way toward the epicenter of the ongoing construction works. A pipeline is being installed for a dam that will be built about 2km further upstream — so say the coordinates now.
Standing in the midst of a hole dug up down through the riverbed of Kaludjerka, Helena is left without words.
“We have to stop this [construction],” she says to her activist colleagues, Granit and Alex.
But how, is still the question.
This construction will be one of two dams linked to this hydropower plant, both of which are within the territory of the Sharr National Park, absorbing both of the Lepenc’s tributaries, the Kaludjerka and Bolovanka.
It is something that representatives of the Sharr National Park, which is a protected area, have spoken out against.
A report submitted to the Ministry of Environment last year by the directors of the Sharr National Park, the Bjeshkët e Nemuna National Park in Western Kosovo and the Kosovo Institute for Nature Protection leaves no doubt about the high environmental damage to the Sharri area and Kosovo’s wildlife at large.
It says that the construction of hydropower poses a high risk to the riverbed as an ecosystem and to the wildlife in and out of the river; the report gives the example of the degradation observed in the valley of Deçan, where hydropower plants have been operating for some years now. It also alerts the national institutions of the legal problems of allowing the construction of dams within the protected area of the parks.
The report points not only to Kosovo’s international commitments to directives and conventions for the protection of its nature. It also includes concerns about violations of Kosovo’s Constitution with regards to nature, the Law on Environmental Protection, the laws on National Parks, and several administrations and management plans of the park.
Asked about whether the concerns for the biodiversity of the rivers remain now that construction work has advanced since the publication of the report, the director of the Sharr National Park, Bajram Kafexholli, told K2.0 that for as long as there is a risk to the biodiversity of the park, there will be concerns.
The National Park directors have been some of the very few institutional managers that have been raising a warning voice against hydropower construction in the area. Unlike in Peja and Prizren — where local mayors fought against the attempts to build new hydropower plants and warned they would use every legal remedy to stop them — the Municipality of Štrpce has not been outspoken.
In 2016, the Municipality of Štrpce did initially approve a decision to suspend ongoing hydropower work until the issue of the water supply in the town was solved. But with ongoing water problems in the entire municipality, residents have been left wondering why the companies have been allowed to continue working. It remains unclear what happened to the Municipality’s decision.
The construction work in Štrpce and elsewhere was suspended this year when pandemic lockdown measures were introduced by the former Albin Kurti government. But this decision lasted for as long as his government — a blink of an eye. As measures were lifted in early summer, work in Štrpce restarted. Bulldozers broke through the blockade of residents at the Obe Reke, and the pace has been constant ever since.
Helena walks along Kaludjerka and enters the Sharr National Park territory. Around the very same location where a dam is projected to be built, there are recent signs of wildlife, large scratches on a tree that signify the recent presence of a bear that marked his territory.
After leaving behind some lumberjacks, who were loading their small trucks in preparation for winter, and shepherds walking through with their goats, the thick forest and freshness is almost untouched in this area.
There is still a balance between the human hand and mother nature.
But Helena has her mind on the destruction she has just witnessed. “You don’t have ecologists, biologists, conservationists, geographists, hydrologists speaking out against this,” she says, showing frustration. “It’s just the citizens.”
Helena studied biology in Belgrade and discovered real wildlife once she engaged in activities outside of the classroom and outside of the city. “It’s a matter of education: Students of biology or ecology rarely learn about these places by coming to them,” she says.
Helena repeats the need to put together a legal case that at a minimum could halt the works, because once the riverbed is damaged, any recovery will take years. But activists and residents are at times lost in a tangled mess of documents. It’s a bureaucratic endeavor that depends on dozens of actors.
The Assembly of Kosovo’s commission that is investigating hydropower in the country is only just being set up, and it is expected to take six months before publishing its findings.
Meanwhile, hydropower constructions and operations across Kosovo’s rivers will continue. Time is running out.
After Kaludjerka, Helena continues to walk along the Durlov Potok stream, a path usually used by skiers and snowboarders coming off tracks down the mountain in the Brezovica resort. What used to be a one-person narrow path is now a messy road upward, wide enough for trucks and bulldozers, including a dam that is built but yet to be fully functionalized.
Shortly before the construction of the dam, Helena observed a bear here at this very same location. Now, another two dams are planned around here, again within the Sharr National Park.
Zooming out after visiting some of the sites at stake, Helena reflects on what could have gone wrong at the decision-making structures to allow this to happen.
“All of this shows that the problem is systemic,” she says. “There are incompetent people in complex systems without moral guidance. The system is hijacked.”
More than a river
Back at Elizabeta and Stanko’s wooden cabin, on the last Sunday of summer, there is only the noise of horses’ neighing and the permanent sssshhhh of the Kaludjerka stream.
Stanko has no letters to deliver today. His two-wheel, yellow Tomos rests at home, and all he has ridden today is his horse around the mountains that preside above the town.
Since all of this started, Stanko has been on a psychological edge. He was baptized in this river, and almost bursts into tears when asked what the rivers mean for him.
He cuts alfalfa plants and rides his horse to take his mind away from the events of this August, when machines made it through the Obe Reke. The bulldozers continue working upstream on the Kaludjerka, a few dozen meters away from where he sits.
Stanko has since brought the case to court as he claims ownership over the property used by the Matkos Group to initiate the works upstream; the company claims it is public land. The case remains in the hands of the justice system.
Now, sitting down under the humble shade of a tree, in between good spirits and emotional tales of their youth, Elizabeta sings traditional songs in Serbian. Every single one mentions the nature that surrounds them.
A sheep, the mountain, a shepherd, a mother — the river.
“I promised my daughter that they wouldn’t pass … And they passed,” says the postman, letting a tear down his cheek.
Elizabeta reminds him that it is not his fault. But his morals see in his own words almost a betrayal to the future generations of his family. He had protested in Biti, even before he knew that pipelines would take the same Kaludjerka that flows along his property.
His fight for water is sincere, selfless. He carries the burden of a dry river.
It also represents the powerlessness of citizens before the prison of bureaucracy, local politics gone gonzo, and government excelling at looking toward the other side.
Beyond legal arguments that are to be resolved by a court now, and the rights and wrongs of documents and permits, residents and activists like Stanko, Elizabeta, Agron, Edita, Helena, and others, have taken on the soulaching burden of protecting the river.
“Earlier they never tried to take away our water,” Stanko says. “The river means everything to me — the past and the future.
“There is no life without the river.
“Water is life.”
Text by Cristina Marí
Photography by Atdhe Mulla
Videos by Ilir Hasanaj
Editing by Besa Luci, Jack Butcher
This publication is supported by the ‘Civil Society programme for Albania and Kosovo’, financed by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and managed by Kosovar Civil Society Foundation (KCSF) in partnership with Partners Albania for Change and Development (PA). The content and recommendations do not represent the official position of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Kosovar Civil Society Foundation (KCSF).