Saving the Balkan Rivers

Interview - Rok Rozman - Part 1

Saving the Balkan Rivers

Recently Balkan Vagabonz’ came across a campaign that resonated with the mission of our team – to preserve nature on the Balkans and work with local communities for a sustainable future. We felt obliged to spread the word about the cause of our fellow adventurers from the Leeway Collective and at the same time learn about what it takes to organise a grassroots, cross border, eco-action on a big scale. We figured the best way to understand more about how to save the rivers on the Balkans is to speak with Rok Rozman, a biologist, activist and kayaker who has done a lot to bring awareness to the problems that are looming over the wild rivers on the Balkans.

We invite you to read the first part of the interview given exclusively for Balkan Vagabondz’s blog readers.

Firstly, please tell us a bit about yourself so our readers can paint a picture of your background and lifestyle. ~

Rok Rozman, Leeway Collective, Balkan Rivers Tour

Photo: Jan Pirnat

My career as an athlete started early. I began playing ice hockey when I was 3 and continued for more than a decade but had some misunderstandings with my coach and decided to switch to rowing. Rowing is not a very complicated sport but it requires tons of hours of hard training. I put a lot of effort and in 4 years got to the Olympics but finished fourth and missed the medal… I was so close, and I was only 19. My world collapsed. I didn’t care I was the youngest at the competition, all I wanted was the medal. I promised myself that if I get that piece of metal I would quit rowing. Next year we won bronze medal at the World Championship and after that I got a back injury which interrupted my sport career and made me stop and think about what I really want from my life. Turns out my back was smarter than my brain, giving me the opportunity to quit. In the end professional sport was not as meaningful as I needed it to be. There was more I could do with my life. So this is when the good part starts. In the past I used to kayak but didn’t really have enough time, after I stopped rowing I could go in the mountains and enjoy kayaking to the fullest, along with studying Biology. I started going on kayak trips all over the world slowly becoming aware that the rivers are threatened by economic interests.

Rok Rozman

Kayaker against hydro lobby is like battle of David against Goliath.

Photo: Jan Pirnat

~ How did the idea about taking action occur to you? What moved you and made you get up and do something about river conservation? ~

My friend and I made a bet that we will paddle a waterfall higher than 20m by the end of 2014 but it was already quite late in the year and there was not enough water in Europe so we decided to go to Chile. We pretty much had money just to cover the plane tickets. As I was busy studying, Zan promised to do the planning for the trip…when we got on the plane I realised my friend just had the names of 10 rivers he saw in some kayak movies. You know, Chile stretches 6000 km and we had no idea where these rivers are. We decided we are going to find them somehow. (laughs)

Ben Rok in James, Chilean trip

Celebrating Rok’s birthday after a great day out on Patagonian river Michimauida together with Benny, Zan and James.

Photo: Zan Kuncic

When we got to Chile we met Benjamin, an Australian guy who we found sitting on the street. We started talking to him and realised he can help us as we didn’t speak Spanish. I asked him why he doesn’t have any money. He told me he came to Chile and planned to stay for a month but now it has been two years so the budget calculations didn’t work out…(laughs). And then I asked him why he stayed so long and his answer really moved something in me. He stayed because he heard they want to build a dam on the river Marañón in Peru, it is one of the main tributaries to the Amazon river, it makes the Amazon what it is. Benny checked if there was a campaign to preserve the river and couldn’t find one so he took a bus to Lima and started asking on the streets and nobody knew anything about it. Then he started his own campaign, nobody in Peru dared to do this because the hydropower lobby is super strong. When we met he was just working on a crowdfunding platform. We waited for him to finish setting up the online campaign and headed over to Patagonia with a car that was given to us by a an interesting guy who didn’t have money to run the vehicle but wanted to paddle. After a month we came back and Benny found out he had 42 000 dollars in the campaign’s account. Since then he’s been working on saving the Marañón. One activist already lost his life over this, very dangerous and powerful hydro lobby…

Ben Webb

The good way crazy Benny. Photo: Rok Rozman

For more information on Benny’s campaign visit his pages:

Maráñon Waterkeeper

Paddling with Purpose

So…once I was back home I started thinking about going back to help Benny but I realised that first I need to see what is happening here in the Balkans and I found “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” campaign. I saw that there are plans in place for the construction of 2700 dams on the Balkans and…was like wtf!?!…that’s crazy. I skyped Benny and I said to him, “You have 5 dams in Peru that are the problem and I have 2700, I think I’m going to stay here”…That’s how it started.

Interactive Dam(ned) Map

Dam(ned) map, Save the Blue Heart of Europe

Dams planned in the Balkans (red dots). Source: Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign

“Many countries plan excessive damming of all their rivers. After already having completed many new dams, Macedonia intends to construct another 203 dams (of which 4 are under construction) while Albania plans to build another 337 hydropower plants (with 24 already under construction). The gold rush atmosphere that has emerged in the hydropower sector in recent years needs to be significantly revised if we want to preserve our European riverine heritage in the future.”

Source: http://balkanrivers.net/en/campaign

~ What was your next step? ~

At the time we got some sponsorship from kayaking companies and I thought maybe we can use this to raise awareness for the campaign. We asked some people from “Save the blue heart of Europe” to tell us which rivers need exposure. They told us about Vjosa and the plan to build a dam there. We wanted to show the beauty of this wild river. Zan and I paddled from source to sea and filmed our journey together with two film makers. In 2015 we released the documentary dedicated to the biggest free flowing river on the Balkans – One for the river – The Vjosa Story. And just like that it started winning awards. Then awareness started to grow. People who saw the documentary wanted to engage and help save the river.

Vjosa River, Albania

Vjosa river just above town of Tepelene.

~ Do you think we need more electricity here on the Balkans? ~ 

No, we just need to use it better and not waste it, use it more wisely. Europe at the moment does not need more energy. The supply is more than the demand. So it doesn’t make sense to build more hydro-power plants.

~ Why do they want to build them then? ~

The projects to build 2700 dams on the Balkan rivers have nothing to do with energy needs, it is about money laundering. The building sector is suffering so it is a way to make big construction contracts. The EU bureaucrats, bankers, local government and the building sector will benefit from tax payers’ money. It is not about the electricity. That is just an excuse. Or when they tell you they want to export energy to freaking Pakistan…they really think people are stupid.

~ Rok, do you know who is funding these projects? ~

I can send you some information from BankWatch. They traced the main investor of the 2700 projects, and turns out it is the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. And these guys have a statement that says they exist to protect the last European natural and cultural heritage…and they are putting huge amounts of money into destroying the natural heritage on the Balkans. So that’s why we need the lawyers to point out at this internal conflict and make them stop funding these projects. That’s why we need the NGOs because nobody will listen to you and me. We need lawyers. We can go to the river, make a blockade but at the end of the day the BankWatch and the lawyers and people who deal with EU parliament on regular basis can really stop them. But without us nobody will know about all this. So we are necessary too. It is the collaboration we need to win this battle.

Corruption Union

Bankwatch, which monitors international banking in central and eastern Europe, notes that international development banks are playing a key role. So far, it says, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the European Investment Bank and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation have extended loans totaling 818 million euros to 75 hydropower projects, including 30 directly affecting protected natural areas. “Our analysis clearly shows that especially for the EBRD, but also the World Bank group, financing hydropower projects in protected areas is the norm, not an exception,” said Bankwatch’s Pippa Gallop in a statement in December. “They need to finally start taking their internal safeguard policies seriously.”

Source: Scientific American

Links to BankWatch studies and reports:

http://www.balkanrivers.net/en/news/info-graphics- and-photo- story-about- balkan-rivers

http://bankwatch.org/publications/balkan-hydro

http://stories.bankwatch.org/troubled-beauty

~ So the EU is funding projects that are going to destroy our rivers? ~

Yes, and they get their money from us. From our taxes. In the end the profits go to the guy that owns the building company and to the local government.

EU Corruption

~ Why building dams is not the best solution when it comes to producing energy? ~

Yes, what we always forget to tell people is why dams are bad. I noticed at the presentations I’ve been giving, people often ask me “Why are dams bad”? Then I realise how much money is poured by the hydro lobby to persuade people that dams are green and re-newable. Seems like 95% people have accepted this to be true… Even in the “Smurfs” they are pushing the idea that dams are good for the river. They have penetrated the educational system, they are explaining to kids how hydropower is green…

The truth is that a dam kills the river in two directions, from top to bottom – it stops the sediments and you don’t have to be a biologist to understand that seas and lower stretches of rivers need the minerals that come from the mountains and that the river is not only pushing the water down, it is also pushing all the material downstream. For example the Danube moves hundreds of thousands of metric tons of material each year for 3 kilometers. It’s a huge movement, it’s like half of the mountain moves downstream. Nobody thinks about this. When you build a dam you stop this process so the sea is not getting the fertilisers. The minerals are like fertilisers for the plankton which is eaten by the fish and we eat the fish and we don’t have the fish anymore and it is because the sediment doesn’t get from the mountain to the sea. Nobody speaks about this.

Tampering with nature

Also they say that they are building dams to save the climate crisis. But last year a study came out and the result was that the reservoirs behind the dams, especially the ones located in the tropics, produce methane gas which is 33 times more potent than CO2, so dams are responsible for getting the temperature up as much as the global aviation. And hydro power lobbyist are still trying to convince people they need to invest billions of dollars in dams to save the environment…

Dams contribute to Global Warming – watch the video

The other problem is killing the river from bottom to top. When we block the river we stop the fish from completing its life cycle. But it’s not only that the fish is not able to reproduce. In the United States they realised the forests upstream are also impacted and are now dying off because of the dams as salmon are no longer able to reach the upper stretches of the rivers. If you think on a big scale, for thousands of years, millions of tons of fish including salmon were migrating from the seas into the mountains through the rivers. The fish was not only born but also died there. The fish corpses are full of nitrogen and phosphorus which serves as an organic fertiliser for the highest places on earth, basically the forests rely on fish dying up there. When you interrupt the process the trees will have problems growing. Fish migration is one of the biggest natural energy transmission processes on the planet …and now we have stopped it with the dams, you know…Because our world is ruled by gravity, everything goes downhill, but here we have something going uphill, defying gravity, because the fish needs to go upstream to spawn. Nobody tells you things like that because they want you to think dams are good for the environment.

~ What about the local community. How are they impacted by dams? ~

For example, if they build the dam on Vjosa, 8 villages will go under water. Hundreds of people have to move. That’s not the only problem, the pastures and fields where animals graze will be lost. The parts of land near the river are the most fertile places and these communities are still living from the river. It is a sustainable way of living. The developed world is trying to teach us how to live sustainably but local people have been doing it for centuries…They are going to destroy their way of life if we don’t do something about it.

When dams collapse

When dams collapse

~ We really need to protect what we have here on the Balkans. ~

Yes, the ecological state of the rivers on the Balkans is incredible in comparison with Western Europe. That’s why the hydro-lobby is excited about the pristine rivers on the Balkans. They have ruined the rivers in Western Europe and now they are looking for the potential of the rivers in Eastern Europe.

Ecological state of the rivers on the Balkans

German Rivers Condition

Source: http://balkanrivers.net/en/campaign

Moreover at the moment the US are investing money in Dam removal. In the documentary Damnation produced by Patagonia you can see the process. It is Patagonia’s biggest project. They made a documentary about the first dam removal in the States. They blew 60m tall dam. They put dynamite into the wall. The river was dammed for 99 years and the last year salmon were still hitting their heads into the dam. After hundred of years they were still trying, they are so stubborn. So they blew the dam apart and all the sediment went down, 100 km into the ocean you could see the murky water because there was so much mud behind the dam. A lot of sceptics were saying that this would destroy the ecosystem that it is dangerous. But the people from the project let nature do its job, next year they stopped counting at 200 000 salmon, the fish somehow realised that the river is alive again and started going up again. It’s crazy. Now after 3 years people started surfing at the coast. The beaches are growing again. So Patagonia has started a global movement for dam removal. 80 dams have already been removed and Japan is doing it too.

Blowing up dams

And you know what the Patagonia guys said to us: “Damnation was one of the biggest successes of Patagonia so far, but you are one step ahead here on the Balkans. We were removing the dams, you can stop the dams.”

Damnation activism

Well in this case I need to do my best to mobilise the Balkan Vagabondz network and people in Bulgaria to pay more attention to what is happening to our rivers.

Stay tuned for Saving the Balkan Rivers – Part 2 !


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