How Many SDGs do the Hydropower Violate?

“The Sustainable Development Goals are a collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”. The SDGs were set up in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly and are intended to be achieved by the year 2030.”

With little more than 8 years to go to the “deadline” of 2030, it seems important to look at how HPP actually impede the achievement of SDGs.  By our reckoning, small hydropower on Balkan rivers like Valbona directly impairs 13 out of 17 SDGs.  Let’s look at Valbona as a case study.

In 2019, over 200 people from around Tropoja – the poorest part of Albania, with 79% unemployment – collaborated to produce Albania’s first community-based development plan.  In this document, they identified tourism and agriculture as the best focus for economic development in the region, and specifically identified small hydropower developments as one of the worst threats to realizing this growth.

In the era of the “Green Deal” which actively promotes Farm-to-Table food production, people in Valbona have always and largely still do produce most of their own food through small scale local production.  Everyone has one cow, grows their own beans and vegetables, etc.  This farming is directly threatened by small hydropower which not only disrupts traditional irrigation canals but in 2020 also actively poisoned them by washing construction material directly into the canals so that several villages fields were completely coated in what looked like a 1cm-thick layer of stucco.  When asked directly, the National Agency of Protected Areas claimed to have no knowledge of the situation, and that their employees had investigated but found the water “clean and blue.” This is despite our certain knowledge that at least one of their employees had alerted them to the situation, requesting that police intervene.

Furthermore, when hydropower creates larger reservoirs – as is planned in Bujan as part of the Valbona Project Company scheme – valuable farm land will be flooded.  In general, agricultural land is low lying and neighboring rivers, so this is the first land to go.

In her 2019 thesis for Maastrict University’s master of Global Health program, researcher Tess Hartland  found that “It is apparent that SHP development in Northern Albania is not only reducing communities’ quality of life, but is also breaching human rights (ABACHR, 2019) with regard to (among others) neglect of transparency, suppression of community voices, knowing reduction of water supplies and the ultimate prevention of local people to achieve the right to adequate mental health and well-being.”

Legal requirements are extremely murky regarding “minimum flow” to be left in the natural bed by hydropower.  The water use permit determines a volume of water which can be removed from the river, but this is based on a percentage of the average flow.  The figure for average flow is taken from . . . . the developer’s EIA.  In any case, in reality minimum flow is not respected.  The Cerem River bed in September 2021 is bone dry, with no flow left at all.  The Albanian law on water use says that water should first go to people, second to agriculture, and only 3rd can be used for industry.  That is clearly NOT being respected in the case of hydropower.

In the 2020 civil society SDG monitoring report published by SDG Watch Europe and Make Europe Sustainable for all, the Valbona case was actually used to highlight the current failure to reach this goal.  “Albania is now 99% reliant on hydropower. Despite this, electricity supply is still unreliable. The problem is not the capacity to generate energy but the seasonality of hydropower with fluctuating rainfall and the poor distribution infrastructure.”  Electricity generated by hydropower is not stored.  The hydropower plants in Valbona are only expected to operate for less than 2 months per year – during periods of maximum flow in spring and autumn.  Thus during winter and summer months, when electricity demand is highest, energy must still be purchased.  The hydropower energy is actually excess and being exported, and thus does not contribute to improving the energy supply for local people.

Hydropower does NOT create jobs.  Once operating, only a watchman may be employed.  During HPP construction in Valbona, only 5 local people were employed – as guards and cleaners.  Hydropower does however promise to radically reduce the amount of water in the river, including in the areas which are ideal for creating tourism through kayaking and rafting, sport fishing and other nature-based activities.  Creating new river-based tourism can provide jobs not only for guides, but hotels, transportation providers, restaurants and wholesalers, etc.

You might think that here the HPPs should shout “Ah Ha – we’ve got you!” but look again.  The hydropower are certainly NOT inclusive, due in part to the endemic problem in Albania of the failure of public participation.  In his study published in 2021, researcher Jordi Benning found that 77% of Tropojans stated that they were not satisfied with their participation in the decision to build the hydropower in Valbona, while 92% of the inhabitants of the National Park predict that their quality of life will be negatively impacted by the planned HPP. 

In addition, many experts now question the sustainability of small hydropower, as the environmental impacts are vastly outweighing the benefit of the very small amount of power produced.  It is anticipated that all of the energy produced by Albania’s proposed 700 small hydropower will at most provide less than 5% of the country’s energy needs.

Here again we refer to the problem detailed under SDG 9 – the complete failure of hydropower development plans to take into account the local population’s own vision for their communities.  The people of Dragobia, a region inside of the Valbona Valley, have a very real fear that lack of access to water will force them to abandon their homes, and as one inhabitant states “After 300 years here, where will we go?”

In a 2017 evaluation study on water-based conflicts in Albania, the author Elton Qendro states “In all cases of conflict analyzed, the most vulnerable groups are mainly rural communities, small villages or communities whose lifestyle is inextricably linked to water resources for their food. Transformation and / or appropriation of their territory and ecosystem by new users (energy companies) displaces and removes their traditional rights and openly threatens various aspects of their social structure and cohesion. “

For all of the reasons already stated, the people of Valbona do not feel that small hydropower represents a sustainable method of production, as it impacts them negatively economically, socially and environmentally. 

Reseach conducted in the past 10 years suggests that hydropower is actually a major contributor to methane emissions, which are from 3 to 35 times as damaging to earth’s atmosphere as carbon dioxide (depending on the timescale).  

It is somewhat curious that freshwater resources are not mentioned here, but with over 80% of the planet’s freshwater species currently threatened, concern should also be given to negative impacts in this area.  Hydropower clearly has a negative impact on river health, even when responsibly maintained.  Despite ‘fish ladders’, sediment flow is directly impared, resulting in radical changes to river morphology.  In Albania, where riverbeds are actually left 100% dry, the effect is catastrophic.

The small hpp being constructed on Valbona are “Run of River”, meaning they are planned to remove water from 30km of the Valbona river and her tributaries and driving the river into a series of underground tunnels. This reduction in surface flow is expected to reduce humidity and lead to an increase in overall temperatures, which will certainly have a negative impact on the surrounding forests. 

It is important to note that 8 of the 14 known HPP plants are wholly located within the Valbona Valley National Park.  Under Albanian law, a national park is defined as an area “minimially impacted by human activity.” 

A key problem in Albania is the extremely poor quality of the EIA submitted by all hydropower during the environmental permitting process.  In the case of Valbona, EIA had only two informally worded sentences describing the biodiversity of the national park where the HPP are located.  There was no research referenced, and several of the species mentioned do not in fact occur in the area.  An EIA for HPP on Gashi River (which supports a UNESCO world heritage forest) stated “There are some insects.”  Such documents not only give no confidence in the commitment of developers to protect biodiversity, but to the contrary give the distinct impression that they are not aware of the concept.

TOKA and local inhabitants filed our first lawsuit against the hydropower in 2017.  There are presently 4 administrative suits pending and 2 criminal charges.  In addition, the developer Gener2 has sued TOKA for the equivalent 160,000 euro, mostly for “saying bad things on facebook.”  Two stop-work orders have been ignored by the developer, despite remaining in effect, and there is no action from the government or justice systems to support enforcement.  Tropoja district court made a ruling which the Ministry of Justice called “completely illegal.”  There were no repercussions.  In 2017, the court ruled that in the case of hydropower “Aarhus doesn’t apply.”  

The phenomenon of – often state-backed – harrassment of anti-hydropower activists in Tropoja was documented by the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights’ 2019 report.

For all of these reasons, we believe that the case study of Valbona River’s small hydropower should be considered an urgent indication of the failure of Albania to show any intention of meeting the 2030 SDG goals.  We further remind you that Valbona is only one river, and almost every river in Albania – and indeed the Balkans – is facing the same problems.  The challenge is not to save one river over another, but to realize that the plight of rivers like Valbona (or Cemi, or Curraj, or Seta, or Zall Gjocaj, or Bicaj, or . . . . ) is a direct result of the unsustainable decisions made by government.  We therefore urge all concerned institutions to monitor the ongoing situation in Valbona as a powerful indicator of Albania’s commitment – or lack thereof – to realizing SDGs.