Europe’s Last Free Rivers

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Europe recently; from big cities to the mountain ranges to tiny little villages in the middle of nowhere.

As an American, one of the most striking things I noticed in Europe was the importance of water. Rivers are the lifeblood of this continent. The major cities were built around them, which makes sense, as back in the day waterways were by far the quickest and most efficient method of moving people and goods around.

The European conquest of nature extends far beyond building cities though; almost every single major river on the continent has been dammed for hydroelectric power.

As an American, and one from the West, this fusion of civilization and nature always struck me in an odd way. In the U.S., we usually separate these things. Our nation was built on the back of railroad and automobile infrastructure, which means besides the Mississippi and a few other routes, rivers have largely been left alone. We prefer coal and oil over hydropower (not necessarily a good thing). We also enjoy a deep bond with our public lands.

In the US, our wilderness is untamed and unaltered as much as we can make it so.

For me, this respect for the land and the ecosystems is just as American as the right to own guns, or eat cheeseburgers, or whatever else foreigners associate with our nation. The first time I saw trees painted to mark trails in Hungary, I was horrified. The golden words in the American wilderness are Leave No Trace.

So when I read this article on Adventure Journal about the planned damming of Europe’s last, pristine rivers in the Balkan Peninsula, my initial reaction was pretty negative.

The Fight to Save Europe’s Last Rivers

Patagonia, an American outdoors brand with a strong conservation ethos, has waded into the fray against the dams. They’ve been fighting the construction for a few years; and will release a film, Blue Heart, about the issue in 2018. You can see the trailer below.

I’ve been to the Balkans, and there’s no denying two things:

  1. The countries are beautiful, blessed with truly surprising natural wonders
  2. They are some of the most impoverished nations in Europe

Being able to generate clean, renewable, hydroelectric energy could do a world of good for this region, allowing energy-independence from neighbors with shady geopolitical motivations, as well as being a whole lot cleaner for the environment. Access to cheap renewable energy would be especially helpful during the cold Balkan winter, when most people heat their homes with wood-burning stoves.

But at the same time, once altered, the rivers will never return to their natural state; our planet will be a little bit poorer; a new generation robbed of the chance to commune with river the same way their family has for generations.

The Patagonia video highlights some community members who are against the dams. But without a doubt, there are those who are in favor of new development, at least in principle. After all, properly managed and constructed, these projects stand to do a whole lot of good for the region.

Reality Bites

The unfortunate political reality in the Balkans is that corruption is rampant, inefficiency common, and much of the money allocated for these projects or generated by the finished dams probably won’t make it where it’s supposed to go. In fact, this has already happened: in 2007, an Italian company began constructing a dam along the Vjosë river in Albania. By 2009, the money was gone, no one knew where, The river remained, flowing unperturbed by the half-hearted eyesore of unfinished construction.

So, with this example in our minds, we probably don’t want construction to go forward on these dams.

Cultural Imperialism?

I wonder though, sitting here in Colorado, to what degree is this my fight?

My ethos, my personal ethic, is protection of the environment. We only have the one, after all. I cheered Patagonia when they announced they would sue the U.S. government to protect vast swathes of Utah desert President Trump wanted to open for oil and gas drilling.

But I come from a developed nation, where my quality of life is much higher than that of the average person in the Balkans. The outdoors matter a great deal to me, because I have the leisure time to enjoy them. My life is not concerned with survival.

I can’t tell you the number of times people in the Balkans told me jokes where the punchline was some variant of: ‘Life is shit here.’ These tiny countries are struggling to emerge from a long recent history of civil war, ethnic tensions, and radical dictators. The people need all the help they can get.

I believe in beauty; and I have seen firsthand that the Balkans are beautiful. I believe in environmental conservation. But I also believe in compassion for your fellow human beings, and in this case, more development might not be a bad thing for the people of the Balkans.

What are your thoughts? Should they build the dams? Love to hear from you in the comments.

For a bit more context what we’re talking about, here’s a short video of a beautiful river I shot while on a bus ride between Sarajevo and Mostar, in Bosnia and Herzegovina (a small country in the Balkan regions).

Again, let me know what you think about this issue in the comments!!

4 thoughts on “Europe’s Last Free Rivers

  1. Living in the American West, Daniel, you must know how much hydroelectric power feeds it. My blog post here: outlines the same dilemmas–fdr and Woodie Guthrie vs. Edward Abbey and the Monkey Wrench gang. Whose class interests are being served by the decisions? Is there an alternative like wind and solar that can replace hydroelectric? Germany has done a lot of this. I am reading a good book, The Wizard and the Profit, that takes on these approaches to development from their inception in the US.

  2. You pose an interesting question, especially in the time of global climate change and a rapidly developing and connected world with many getting left behind. I, too, am an outdoor junkie and big proponent of environmental conservation yet finding a balance between strong policy and helping those who are struggling is a must. Should they build the dams? If there’s too much harm to an ecosystem or even a certain populations’ way of life, it’s not a good idea which is why with other clean energy options out there, maybe more research and development on that front is better suited. Just a thought.

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