The Balkan Rivers Tour was first launched in 2016 with a simple aim to raise awareness of the beauty of the Balkan rivers and the threats they are facing from hydropower. In continuation of this project, a second tour kicked off last week with a descent of the Soča River from source to sea. This saw a core group of ten paddlers joined by many more at different stages, complete 138 km of paddling action the entire length of the Soča, starting in Trenta, Slovenia to the Adriatic Sea in Italy.
Four non-stop days of kayaking included raising awareness by working with kids in schools, giving local communities a voice in round-table talks with representatives from local councils and the World Wildlife Foundation, alongside huge meals cooked and campsites donated for free by local people, a movie night, and of course; the wild parties.
Hydropower is promoted as a green energy source and can bring much needed electricity to populations. However, it is sadly the case that hydropower dams often run at below their intended capacity, are funded by foreign banks and investors for profit with electricity sold on the trade market rather than benefitting local people, marred by stories of corruption, violations of environmental legislation, and the most obvious impacts on environment and ecology.
My day job at the Environment Agency in the UK brings me very close to these issues. My current role is to help implement the Water Framework Directive; a European wide directive which I hope the UK will strive to keep after Brexit. Its basic aim is to get every single water body up to healthy standard by 2015. Obviously, this has passed and you may not have noticed much change. But ecological changes take a long time, and the difference with this directive is that ecology is the prime driver behind the determination, not just chemical as in the past. The WFD works on six year cycles, so we are now working on a catchment based approach to galvanise action between communities, river users, businesses and charities to help achieve targets by 2021 and 2027. There is a group and representative from the EA for every single catchment in the UK (www.catchmentbasedapproach.org) and you can definitely be involved!
I am not completely aware of how the WFD and related River Basin Management Plans are being implemented in Slovenia, but I’m interested in finding out. In the meantime, there is action on the ground in the form of the Balkan Rivers Tour. BRT is the largest project of its kind in Europe (organised by the Leeway Collective, proud ambassadors of Save the Blue Heart of Europe) and is supported by companies and organisations from around the World, including WWF Adria . The BRT notion is that the Balkan Peninsula does not need thousands of new dams but that these wild rivers should be protected to keep them free flowing for the people and ecology that depend on them. The unspoiled, pristine canyons and natural gravel bars you paddle through in the upper Soča are breath taking. The crystal waters are world renowned; the Soča is marketed as ‘The Emerald Beauty’. Until you get the dams that is. Then you begin to notice the deep, stagnant lakes leading up to huge walls across the river, below which there is barely any flow. We portaged five large dams and scraped ourselves over two more. One thing in the push for renewable energy is that these wild rivers are anything but renewable. The happiest moments of this tour was witnessing the collective passion from all river lovers and local communities, inspired by the BRT movement. The hope is that by increasing awareness, galvanising action, giving ‘the small people’ a voice, and promoting the benefits of protecting wild rivers for tourism and nature, governments may start to consider other options where possible.
Please check out the Balkan Rivers Tour website, pledge your support, and come join the next leg in Montenegro on the Moraca River! Palm Equipment will also make an annual donation of 1% of its profit from all Whitewater PFD sales to the Free Rivers Fund, of which the Balkan Rivers Tour is a supported project.