Private hydropower plants are destroying natural resourses

Toplodolska river; Foto: Robert Kasumović / Mašina

The social need for renewable energy has become a true frenzy for profit-making among the private investors. Building a mini hydroelectric power plant in a nature reserve can have devastating effects on the ecosystem. We visited Stara Planina, an area where rivers could soon start flowing through the pipes.

We are getting into the car. Rota, our guide, turns the radio on: “Do not doubt my driving and musical qualities”, he says. Accompanied by rock classics, we start our journey towards Stara planina1 and its villages, following Temštica and Toplodolska rivers, which have also become targets of the private investors’ plans to build hydroelectric power plants.

Rota is a former journalist who worked in Pirotske vesti (eng. Pirot’s News) for twenty years. He is a taxi driver now. We reach Temska village after twenty minutes ride. “It has never occurred to them to provide these people with some jobs. They could have developed wool production, or meat production, but they moved Prvi maj from Pirot2 instead, while these villages were dying”, notes Rota. We carry on with our journey without further delay.

Not far from Temska village in the ambient of “Pirot Colorado”, we reach Temac hydroelectric power plant on Temštica, which was adequately incorporated into the environment and is as such a good example of quality planning.

Temac hydro power plant was set in motion in 1940 and was built in order to increase industrial development in the region, mostly because of the tyre factory Tigar. Its capacity is 900 KW. It is owned by the Serbian electric power distributor, and it is not in use. One of the three generators is to become a museum, and has not been in use much ever since it was built – tells us the security guard.

It is amazing that people were able to plan and build in accordance with nature back in the day. Look at what these idiots are doing now – Rota rants.

We move further towards Topli Do where Toplodolska flows. While we are passing through the beautiful canyon tucked in the forest, we can barely take a glimpse of the crystal clear river that is pushing its way through the dark reddish rocks. Almost unable to believe that such beauty could end up inside of future power plants’ pipes, we enter the village. We are encountered by the typical scenery of decaying countryside where time seems to have stopped. Far from civilisation, city noise and human greed, Topli Do is slowly returning to its original state–that of dust. The locals, all of them elderly men and women, look at us appalled, probably wondering who we are and what we are doing there. Young people are long gone, to the big cities.

Aware of our presence disrupting the daily routine of humans and of cattle wandering the streets and surrounding hills, we are gathering our impressions and heading towards Pirot. While Rota is slowly speeding on our way back through Temska, a red writing on a yellow building on our left-hand side is emerging, saying “Temska won’t give the river away.”

Temac dam; Foto: Robert Kasumović / Mašina

Tourism as means of preservation

We can see the barren, snow-capped top of Stara Planina from Pirot. Pure untamed nature exudes from it. And while we are approaching Pirot, we can see a huge building protruding from the town—the widely known tyre factory, Tigar. But instead of its old logo, the building bears the new one, Tigar Tyres3, while Michelin’s name can be seen on its other side, together with the French factory’s recognisable mascot. Further down the road, we are passing by the familiar logo of the former textile giant, Prvi maj, now only a relic of a bygone era.

The centre of Pirot resembles that of other cities’. A few modern hotels covered in dimmed glass windows, huge shopping malls, betting shops and countless cafés filled with numerous customers.

We are about to have a cup of coffee with Bratislav Zlatkov, director of Tourism Association of Pirot and a Stara planina enthusiast. He gives us the account of rich natural and cultural heritage of the area and of its cuisine: “There are many aspects of tourism that could be developed in Pirot and its surroundings”, says Zlatkov. After a brief introduction to its history and tradition, we get to the question of how the building of the new power plant will affect tourism in Pirot region, which is closely connected to that of Stara Planina. “Mini hydro power plants are destroying all our tourism potentials”, snaps Bratislav. “Who should I take up there to look at pipes?”, he continues in a worried tone.

Indeed, it is easy to imagine that tourism could be the driving force of the development of Pirot and its surroundings, taking into consideration all of its incredible natural riches, cultural and gastronomic offer. Furthermore, if one recalls that the average monthly salary in Pirot is around 15,000 Dinars (equivalent to 125 EUR), tourism could provide many people with a decent income generated through accommodation rental and other services. Some advances in tourism in the area can, in fact, be noticed. The year 2012 had 12,500 stays, while their number amounted to 30,000 in 2016. Nevertheless, the local inhabitants are not easily educated on tourism and what its development entails”– so we are told by Zlatkov.

Mentality is the problem. The World Bank’s project named Stara enabled the locals to get grants up to 10,000 EUR covering renovation costs and expanding accommodation capacities. Alas, many of the grants remained unused. The reason for this is the local people fearing their properties may be taken away from them after they invest the money in it”– Zlatkov points out with irony in his voice.

When asked who has the interest in building a mini hydro plant on Stara planina, Zlatkov shrugs his shoulders:

I really don’t know. We can’t get our hands on any blueprints because they are kept private. We have even cited the Law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance, but have achieved nothing. People didn’t even know that there was a public debate on hydroelectric power plants.

“We don’t know who plans what and where. And when bulldozers come, it will be too late. Why cage the river in a pipe and bury it underground, for heaven’s sake?”, Zlatkov concludes. We remain confused after the conversation with him, since we are unable to understand the logic behind the project of building a hydro power plant on Stara planina and the interest behind it.

The institutions are doing their job

In a local patisserie, we are starting a conversation with Dušan Mitić, a councilman in Pirot municipality.

“I’ve been a councilman for the past twenty one year. I am especially proud that I have been an independent councilman during my last three terms. Many municipalities have to bear the burdens of interests of political parties. People do not get what they vote for.”

“The Electoral Law is wrong. As a result of it, we have president Vučić on top of every list”, he describes the political situation on a local level. He introduces the power plant subject with a note on standards regarding building these facilities and their general disrespect by the local authorities and investors.

He also touches upon the Pirot hydroelectric power plant and irresponsible water management of Nišava river, causing major issues for underwater life. “When the power plant is in motion, the fish aren’t”, he is retelling us a story of a local fisherman. “In springtime, when the snow melts in the mountains, around 45,000 litres of cold water flow from Zavojsko lake to Nišava, significantly lowering its temperature. This ill affects spawning and thus the number of fish in the river, in addition. In order to control water torrents, the Pirot power plant has a reservoir that is used to collect some of the raging water and then slowly release it into the river. But alas, it is not used at all. The hydro power plant has to be synced with the needs of the living world inhabiting the river and not the bureaucracy that only cares for producing electricity”, says Mitić.

Topli Do village; Foto: Robert Kasumović / Mašina

Private investments and the common good

Mitić tells us more about who is behind the project of building the power plant from his first-hand experience: “These are private initiatives together with the local authorities. Some private investors have already started buying the land from the local inhabitants on Stara planina.”

We wonder what the Ministry for Environmental Protection is doing regarding the whole power plant conundrum, as well as Srbijašume, the company that manages public forests and which supposedly works on preserving Stara planina; as well as the Institute for Nature Conservation of Niš that is supposed to regulate building any sorts of facilities on Stara planina. None of the mentioned actors wants to take responsibility for the mini power plants. Eventually, the whole process ends up with the local authorities, which are neither in charge nor competent to manage these kinds of projects. This leads to the mini hydros being somehow squeezed into the local spatial plans and their building being approved.

Mitić illustrates the chaotic process: “They get these huge bulldozers into the riverine that you can literally jump over and destroy it. They do whatever they like and no one really cares. You cannot make head or tail of the whole thing, but one is evident—the only ones that have the real interest there are the private investors. This is a systemic fight against ordinary people”, concludes Mitić.

When asked if there is any concrete information on the plans for building the mini hydroelectric power plant and where exactly it is to be built, Mitić says: “Six projects have been granted permissions so far. These six mini hydros will be built on the rivers of Stara planina, according to the plan, and they will destroy around 42km or rivers, their tributaries, and the surrounding forests. When you take into account that all the rivers on Stara planina have very small and sensitive watercourses, the very idea of building hydroelectric power plants on them seems absurd. Moreover, in order to produce the amount of power that you need using the river’s natural flow, you have to build pipes that go all over from the top of the mountain to the foothills where the hydro is located. And all of these should be built in the protected areas, categories I and II, where any kind of building is strictly forbidden.” He carries on:

The State would rather accept a higher price for renewable energy and get guaranteed purchase conditions, which will raise the expenses for the customers at the end of the day. The motivation of the private investors for gaining profit is what lies behind these mini hydros projects. After all, they seem like profitable and safe business investments. Furthermore, strengthening and widening capacities for renewable energy use is one of the conditions stated in the chapter 27 of the negotiations of accession of Serbia to the EU.

Finally, after all the impressions that we gathered and after all the testimonies that we heard, it seems rather clear that building mini hydroelectric power plants on Stara planina is a wrong move from both ecological and engineering perspective. The State has to enhance and develop its energy-producing capacities, but its institutions should at the same time regulate and control these kinds of initiatives by conducting research that tackles feasibility and justification of their impact on the environment, amongst other things. No such studies have been carried out when it comes to Stara planina. Again, it all points to the fact that the common good that should belong to everyone is at mercy of a small group of people. In the very end, it is obvious that the renewable energy projects, such as the mini hydros, will not renew Pirot district.

While we are taking our last sips of coffee and getting ready to take our leave, Mitić frames the whole conversation: “Human’s intelligence is measured by his or her relationship to nature. The one who neglects it is neither human nor intelligent. He or she is not a human because they do not care about others, and are not intelligent because by destroying nature they are bringing about their own destruction, too.”

Translation from Serbian: Ivana Anđelković

This article was originally published in Serbian on November 7, 2017.

  1. Stara planina (eng. The Old Mountain) is a mountain range in SE Serbia. It is a nature reserve covering more than 1100km2 and is inhabited by numerous protected animal and plant species (translator’s note).
  2. Prvi Maj (eng. The First of May) was a large garment producing company from Pirot, which employed around seven thousand people and had more than a hundred retail stores in Yugoslavia (translator’s note).
  3. The old logo had just the word “Tigar” (tiger in Serbian) in it, which was kept by the investor, but the English word “tyres” was added to it after it was bought by the foreign investor (translator’s note).
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