Green But Not Clean:
The cost of hydropower in Bosnia
By Warda Khokhar
I landed in Sarajevo, after an arduous 24 hour flight, expecting to see remnants of a city devastated by war. My ignorance was swiftly exposed, as when the morning came, and I pulled apart the curtains, the view outside my window was of mountains. At least four that I could count, circling the city. Enveloping it. I almost believed then, that nature was the most potent force in the country.
As I ventured my way into the city that first morning, I noticed a jogger running down the Miljacka river.Following him with my eyes I was once again led to the mountainscape, as if it was some awesome creature from a Lovecraftian horror beckoning me to explore. In April 2019 I was part of a research trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina, trying to understand how the state had fared 30 years after peacebuilding efforts were initiated. Throughout my visits to the parliament, international peacebuilding institutions and local grassroots activist groups across the country, references to the energy industry (specifically hydropower) resurfaced time and time again. I read about the river I walked along every morning,where it came from and went to, and how famous Bosnia was for this family of rivers. It was referred to as the “Blue Heart of Europe” by the civil servants I spoke to, and now Bosnia’s “Blue Heart” is under threat.
The state insists that utilising the bountiful rivers to attract energy projects would lead to subsequent employment and all round wealth - helping reconstruct a country that was still crumbling here and there decades after the war. A saving grace, the energy sector in recent years has attracted the attention of foriegn investors from Austria, Germany and Turkey, who have started to invest in building hydropower plants across the country. Hydropower or hydroelectricity refers to the conversion of energy from flowing water into electricity. By using turbines, energy is harnessed by dams built along the country’s rivers. The state hoped to generate enough electricity to export more widely to the EU and to this end, the Bosnian government provided regulatory and financial ease for these investors which is a significant thing in its own right. Attempting to consolidate any nationwide decision in a country split across two political entities, an autonomous district and a tri-party government that appointed leaders representing the three warring ethnic groups, is nothing short of a miracle. This consociationalist burden was placed upon the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina by international actors to “keep the peace”, with not even a constitution to show for it.
Illustration of a hydropower plant (Illustration: Student Energy)
Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs alike told me of corrupt politicians, economic scarcity and painful memories of their past. They told me that the government was too much of a mess, and politicians kept it that way so that they could make money - reflected in hydropower. Public energy projects are handed to companies owned by government officials who make financial profit from each contract signed. Lack of legal oversight means that there is no accountability, and without that, there is no obligation to improve.
Such profiteering has occured at the expense of locals whose welfare is consistently threatened. Hydropower plants are being built across the Sana River and villagers in Kruščica aren’t happy. Employment is short lived as construction requires a workforce only until the dams and plants are put up, then machines take over the automated operations. There is fortune for the one local who gets paid to push a button every now and then, but for the remaining third of the working class who are unemployed, this means little. In Kruščica, they also have to suffer continuous degradation of their drinking water, caused by dams that contaminate the rivers and freshwater supply - threatening to dry up the river altogether. Local female grassroots organisations in the village have been protesting against the proposed building of dams following a global trend of environmental defenders being at risk of harm. From Indonesia’s palm oil industry being rife with human rights abuses, to the death of indigenous environmental activist Felix Vasquez, murdered in front of his own family in Honduras, these “Brave Women of Kruščica” monitor the bridge leading in and out of the village to prevent construction vehicles from accessing the site, and are met with violence from police officers who are sent to disperse their efforts.
Elsewhere, long standing industries in Bosnia are on the verge of extinction. The Medna Dam has been harming the local salmon population which is vital to a once thriving fishing industry. Recent plans by the Regional Cooperation Council to embark upon a region-wide project to attract tourism are at risk too, as the hiking and kayaking routes along the shared naturescapes within the Balkans are threatened by hydropower plants.
Medna hydropower plant on the Sana river in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Photo: Matic Oblak)
The above paints a grim picture of the future of hydropower in Bosnia. The claims of hydropower’s benefit to the locals are grossly over exaggerated in the case of Bosnia. Perhaps most insidiously, any profit generated is being made off the back of local precarity, aided by deep rooted corruption that infiltrates all levels of the political structure. Hydropower thus benefits a small sub section of the country; political and economic elites (who in the case of Bosnia) are one and the same. Though profitable for these few folk, it clearly is not sustainable for the rest. Bosnian’s feel powerless and their elected officials benefit exponentially.
The past decade has seen a major shift in the policy world; local and supranational institutions alike have been calling for a push towards greener energy to fuel nations through private sector collaboration and this has been the golden strand of neoliberal economics that governments have incorporated into their development agendas. I thought then of the potency of nature in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and how clear it was that without functioning and accountable political institutions, no local would ever see the benefits of their country’s richest resource again.
I think back to those moments where I drove through valleys covered in green, my windshield fogging up due to the rain and how difficult it has been to navigate these memories with the reality of locals. Bosnia is a complicated country, where histories of conflict live side by side in the absence of conflict, but not entirely in peace. Almost 30 years after the war, schools are still ethnically segregated, unregulated energy production places the young at risk of lung disease, and healthcare is inaccessible to the majority. The ruined potential of hydropower is but one sliver of the way locals feel their government has failed them.
For more information on hydropower, unsustainability and the Balkans please see below a list of useful links: