Aleksandar Jovanović Ćuta has been fighting against the construction of run-of-river small hydropower plants (SHPPs) on Mt. Stara Planina (the Balkan mountain range) since 2016. Growing up, Jovanović witnessed much better hydrological days of the rivers and streams of Stara Planina, which have since been hurt by climate change and investors’ plans to build SHPPs. In an interview with Balkan Green Energy News, Jovanović says that building SHPPs in protected areas would be impossible but for “the legal system breakdown.”
“There is no life without water, and the construction of the planned SHPPs would extinguish life on Stara Planina, a beautiful place in whose rivers we learned to walk as toddlers. I remember as children rafting down those rivers on inner tubes like Tom Sawyer. We know what we are fighting for,” says Jovanović, one of the founders of the Defend the Rivers of Mt. Stara Planina movement.
Run-of-river small hydropower plants mushroomed after feed-in tariffs, financed by citizens through electricity bills, were introduced in 2009. Jovanović, today the face of environmental activism in Serbia, says the problem of SHPPs would be easily resolved by abolishing feed-in tariffs for this renewable energy source.
And the source is not that renewable – many of the threatened rivers practically run dry in the summer, says Jovanović, noting that construction permits for small hydropower plants have been issued based on the outdated cadaster of SHPPs, adopted in 1987.
Rather than finance SHPPs, leaving the local population without drinking water and destroying the flora and fauna in rivers and around them, feed-in tariffs could be used for the installation of solar panels that would supply electricity even to the remote areas of Stara Planina, where life is hard and people should be encouraged to stay, says Jovanović.
“What especially complicates the matter is the fact that the municipality of Pirot entered 58 locations for small hydropower plants in its spatial plan in 2011, without specifying that these should be environmentally neutral mills,” says Jovanović, adding that this paved the way for the construction of the cheapest and environmentally most damaging run-of-rivers SHPPs.
In the meantime, various regulations have been adopted to prevent the construction of SHPPs in protected areas, however, the state is citing the lowest-level regulation – the local spatial plan – when issuing construction permits for these facilities, says Jovanović.
He recalls that if all 850 SHPPs planned in Serbia were to be built, they would account for only about 2% of the country’s overall electricity output, which can be achieved with only one 65 MW solar park, such as the one planned to be built in Kostolac.
Recounting the longtime struggle against hydropower plants in the Pirot area, Jovanović highlights 2017, when environmental protesters received a boost from scientific and institutional circles. , himself voiced his opinion, both through documentation and at various panels, about the damaging effects of small hydropower plants.
One of the largest protests organized by the Defend Rivers of Mt. Stara Planina movement was held in , when thousands of people gathered to protest the construction of small hydropower plants in protected areas. The next major protest was held in , when thousands demanded the end of the construction of small hydropower plants.
And the years of activism paid off – citizens have so far either fought out a formal ban on, or prevented the construction of and small hydropower plants on the Rudinjska, Toplodolska, and Jelovička rivers.
“This means that banks which are still not giving up on approving loans to investors in run-of-river SHPPs should ask themselves who guarantees they will get their money back. Any project for which they have not secured the consent of the local community will fail,” says Jovanović, who is announcing an environmental protest to be held outside UniCredit Bank’s headquarters in Belgrade.
According to him, banks should realize that by financing run-of-river SHPPs they support violations of law, the destruction of the local community, and crimes against the environment – and this certainly cannot be described as corporate social responsibility, which is built into the culture of serious institutions and businesses.
The sustainable development of Stara Planina (Old Mountain), according to Jovanović, can be achieved through rural tourism, the manufacture of authentic food and production of medicinal herbs, a return to old trades, and the construction of environmentally benign mills.
Jovanović and his colleague Aleksandar Panić have recently founded the New Old Mountain, an association promoting Stara Planina’s environmental protection and sustainable development.
The association has already started work on a database of products and services that the local population could offer, Jovanović tells us as he describes his vision of Stara Planina’s development into a tourism center whose nature would be protected, while it would attract large tourist numbers, like the famous Yellowstone National Park in the US.
This year, the New Old Mountain plans to organize a festival to showcase trades and products that in the future could play a part in the sustainable development and people’s return to the area.