Europe Blue Heart under attack

Courtesy: Annalisa Turolla

Courtesy: Annalisa Turolla

EU – The European Commission has set an ambitious target of achieving good ecological status for all Europe’s rivers by 2015, but rivers, used mainly for water supply, energy production, irrigation and transportation, in many parts of the Community are at risk of not reaching good ecological status or potential due to a range of human activities. Furthermore the Blue Heart of Europe is under attack: on the Balkan Peninsula more than 570 hydropower plants are projected to be built in the next few years: it’s a gold rush. Not enough, when we want to damage something we want to do it at large scale: in the future it is planned to be carried out hydropower plants throughout all Europe. The controversial question could be: we need energy and we need it clean. What could be more environmentally friendly than generating electricity from flowing water? 

The truth is that theories on the ecological dynamics of rivers are mainly based on short-term studies and all energy sources have often environmental effects that are hard to quantify. Hydropower can be greener than any other technology, no air pollution, no gases, low maintenance cost, do not depend on foreign fuel: it may seem environmentally friendly, but of course is not completely. Although a nonpolluting energy resource, the environmental damage caused by hydropower can be serious, affecting the eco system and careful consideration must be given to this.

  1. Methane, indirectly let out by the dams turbines, form the decomposed plants and tree underneath, is considered 21 times much stronger than carbon dioxide to effect the global warming. EPA, U.S. Environmental Agency says: Hydropower’s air emissions are negligible because no fuels are burned. However, if a large amount of vegetation is growing along the riverbed when a dam is built, it can decay in the lake that is created, causing the buildup and release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. 
  2. Habitat destruction presently ranked ad the most significant cause of species extinction worldwide, is the alteration of a natural habitat, modified also by surface mining, deforestation, urban development, air pollution, introduction of alien species or water pollution that can dramatically alter the survival of species. In addition to dam trap sediments that would otherwise reach the sea. When a dam is constructed, a river habitat is replaced by a lake habitat, and this may cause a number of environmental problems: by blocking rivers with massive dams, we can destroy the wildlife habitats, not to mention making areas of fertile land unusable for agriculture as Daniel B. Botkin observes.
  3. Bio-diversity loss. Therefore, in addition to the series of risk factors analyzed by LIFE and Europe’s rivers, like nutrient enrichment (eutrophication), physical interventions including river regulation, acidification (decreasing of the pH levels), organic micro pollutants, heavy metals, radioactivity (nuclear plants are normally located near water sources),that cause bio- diversity loss,  we need to add the environmental effects of dams, many other effects on water quality and aquatic life, an the risk of a dam breaking that should also not be ignored (Inundation destroys terrestrial ecosystems).

In response to the report “Fragmentation and Flow Regulation of the World’s Large River Systems” published on Science by Christer Nilsson and colleagues, where they prove that: “A global overview of dam-based impacts on large river systems shows that over half  are affected by dams, including the eight most biogeographically diverse. Dam-impacted catchments experience higher irrigation pressure and about 25 times more economic activity per unit of water than do unaffected catchments. In view of projected changes in climate and water resource use, these findings can be used to identify ecological risks associated with further impacts on large river systems”, Christian Wolter, fish ecologist of the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, said: Even low- head dams of about 2 m completely prohibit migrations of aquatic organisms especially fish and, thus, fragment populations and communities”.

Courtesy: Salviamo la Val Trebbia

Courtesy: Salviamo la Val Trebbia

Rivers, containing about 0,0001% of the total amount of water in the world, are of immense importance: geologically, biologically, historically and culturally and they are not only sources of water, energy production, irrigation and transportation, they are once again becoming recreational sites, used for bath- ing, sailing and fishing. Water is life. Up to 60% of the human adult body is water that is essential for a number of functions  to keep us all going. Dams impact on the environment with land use, wildlife impacts (dams obstruct the dispersal and migration of organisms) and Life-cycle Global Warming Emissions.

Balkan Peninsula is not the only one under attack. In Italy, thanks to the incentives, you take advantage of any body of water, even tiny, causing considerable environmental impacts: the hydropower dam, projected to be built in the Trebbia Valley, a hidden gem in the North where you can go rafting, walking, climbing and find a magical castle, amongst other things, will have a strong impact on the environment and landscape. Above all people don’t want turn rivers into a lake.

We are already damaging our rivers and we forget that nature needs halat least for people and planet to prosper.

European Union Water policy provides a key element for the Water Framework Directive (WFD), that obliges neighbouring countries to work together to improve water quality in cross-border areas where they share the same river basins. The directive establishes a clear environmental target of good status’, controlling all pollutant emissions and discharges and says that the public participation is a a fundamental component .

ESHAThe European Small Hydropower Association, who represents the interest of the hydropower sector by promoting the benefits and opportunities of hydropower at EU level, shows the current challenges of hydropower today.:

  • We need to improve impacts on hydromorphology, which affects the ecology and fish migration through the increasing number of fish-passes and fish-friendly turbines, which effectively reduce the impact on fish migration to a sustainable level.
  • We need to provide services such as flood control, and by helping prevent water scarcity and drought, that are not taken into account by policy makers or by the market.
  • Legislations need to be adapted

The defining of the role of Hydropower in European Energy Mix will be discussed on 17th and 18th of September 2014 in Porto, Portugal, during the Hydropower DevelopmentEurope 2014 Summit.

Olivia Terragni

I'm a journalist who has studied architecture or an architect who writes. I've a Master's Degree in History and Philosophy and a Master's Degree in Architecture. I developed my expertise is in Energy Saving, International Environmental Law, Urban Planning and Sustainable Water Management. As an architect I trust in sustainable living, as a historian in human development and in cooperation.

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