Photo: BIRN.

‘Destructive’ hydropower construction continues despite lockdown

Construction of hydropower plants on the Lepenc River, which have been described as ‘devastating’ for the country’s water resources, has continued during the coronavirus outbreak, despite residents fear that this could help the virus spread.

The construction of several small hydropower plants on the Lepenc River in the south of Kosovo is continuing, despite concerns from local residents that workers will contribute to the spread of coronavirus in the region.

Agron Rushiti, a resident of Lower Biti in the municipality of Strpce, was part of a protest against the work ongoing in his village held on 17 March. Speaking to BIRN, Rushiti raised concerns that not only will the hydropower plant damage the river, but that continued construction during the pandemic could contribute to the spread of coronavirus. 

“Today I came out because of coronavirus,” he said. “There are workers from all over, Prizren, Suhareka, Ferizaj and Kacanik, and I fear that they will bring the virus here.”

A coalition of civil society organisations have demanded that construction be halted immediately. Through a press release published on Wednesday, the coalition emphasized that the projects underway on the river are damaging the tributaries of the Lepenc and endangering the residents. 

“While life and activity in many areas have ceased due to the pandemic, private companies are quietly continuing the completion of projects for the construction of small hydropower plants,” the statement reads.

Acting Deputy Minister of Environment Avni Zogiani told Prishtina Insight that the government is struggling to find a solution to halt the construction. 

“Companies that have licenses for hydropower plants seem to have gained confidence, especially since the vote of no confidence against the Kurti Government,” said Zogiani. “Right now, we are trying to figure out how to obtain an order from the relevant departments that would enable us to suspend the work of these operators, at least until the pandemic ends.”

According to Zogiani, the residents he has spoken to that rely on the Lepenc River feel helpless. “Inhabitants of the Lepenc basin claim their drinking and irrigation water is being cut by the hydropower plants,” he said. “They are mainly agricultural communities that fear their livelihoods will be destroyed by the construction and the excessive use of water.”

Construction is also creeping into touristic areas such as Brezovica, where residents are reliant on the protection of nature to make a living. “We have already seen the devastating transformation of the landscape in touristic areas. The companies that execute these projects are ruthless towards nature when they build,” said Zogiani.

ERO gives the green light

The Energy Regulatory Office, ERO, has announced a number of extensions to licenses approving hydropower plant construction in 2020.

In February, it announced that it was extending the authorisation licenses for the completion of three hydropower plants on the Lepenc River – one in the Municipality of Kacanik constructed by 2 Korriku LLC, and two in the Municipality of Strpce to be built by the Matkos Group.

The ERO also approved an extension of the preliminary authorisation to build a hydropower plant named ‘HPP Lepenci 2’ in the Municipality of Kacanik, giving the company Dino Energy LLC until June 2020 to apply for final authorisation and begin construction. 

On March 27, the ERO also announced plans to extend its authorisation for the construction of ‘HPP Lepenci 1,’ a 9.98 MW small hydropower plant along the Lepenc River, as well as three more small hydropower plants in Dragash.

According to the head of the ERO’s Legal and Licensing department, Afrim Ajvazi, work to complete the hydropower plants in the Municipality of Kacanik required an extension to its authorisation due to delays as a result of continuous protests from local residents. 

People living near the Lepenc River have been continuously protesting against the construction of any hydropower plants along the banks of the river since the first authorisation permits for construction were given to investors in 2015.

An ongoing battle

Before government measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus were put in place, the Kosovo Prosecution announced its plans to finalize investigations into the ownership of Kosovo’s small hydropower plants – in particular the privatization of four hydropower plants alongside the Kosovo Energy Distribution Service, KEDS, in 2018. 

According to Zogiani, the newly formed Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment also had plans to review the authorisation of further hydropower plant construction.

“We were in the process of a serious reconsideration of the legal basis upon which these licences were given, but the pandemic and the dismissal of the government have hindered these efforts,” said Zogiani. “We know for example that these licences were given without having any studies for water resources in general, and for respective river basins specifically.”

The last research measuring Kosovo’s water supply above and below ground was conducted in 1984, and this is still being used to authorise construction today.

A moratorium on the authorisation of permits for construction was put in place in April 2018 by former Minister of Environment and Spatial Planning, Albena Reshitaj. Her decision came in response to several protests that took place in Decan and Peja in March of the same year, following the authorisation of the construction of a hydropower plant in the Llocan gorge, near Decan.

Hundreds of people gathered in Peja to protest the Hydropower plant. | Photo: Drenushe Ramadani/BIRN.

Reshitaj requested that the Office of the Prime Minister ensure that feasibility studies be conducted into every site for which permits have been issued allowing the construction of hydropower plants. 

However, former environment minister Fatmir Matoshi lifted the moratorium two weeks before the October 6 parliamentary elections in 2019, before any such study had been completed.

Matoshi noted that no permits for construction have been issued as a result of lifting the moratorium, as the power to grant permits lies with the ERO, and not the ministry. 

According to Zogiani, government strategies to protect Kosovo’s water resources are crucial before the construction of hydropower continues. “Relevant documents on hydrology, such as studies on the state of Kosovo waters, are absent – there was no plan or strategy on the use of water,” he said. 

Dubious Environmental Impact Assessments

According to Kosovo law, an Environmental Impact Assessment, EIA, must identify the potential adverse impact of any construction project on the environment. Before granting environmental consent, essential for the project to go ahead, the relevant ministry must be satisfied that the investor will do everything reasonably within their power to prevent and mitigate any adverse impacts.

In 2014, the Matkos Group conducted an EIA analysing the potential risks of constructing its five planned projects along the Lepenc River. 

While it noted significant adverse impacts on the ecological balance of the river, the only measures outlined that the investor will take are the “proper organization of the work” and “shortening duration of construction,” which in the opinion of Matkos, would make any damage to the area’s ecological balance “acceptable.” The assessment also notes that the project will not have a significant impact on flora and fauna, without providing evidence to support this claim. 

The EIA concludes that adverse environmental impact during the hydropower plant’s operation “almost does not exist, except in reducing the amount of river water, which adversely affects plant and animal habitat that developed in the river.” Matkos estimated that the hydropower plants will take between 60 and 65 per cent of all water in the river.

According to Zogiani, the EIAs conducted by all of the investors constructing hydropower plants on the Lepenc River do not satisfy the requirements for environmental consent. 

“The impact assessments were done in a pro-forma manner, and didn’t fulfill the minimum legal and professional standards required,” Zogiani said, adding that Kosovo’s energy sector is not doing enough to ensure that plans for developing hydropower energy are in the country’s best interests. 

“The process implemented right now has the Energy Strategy as its basis, but this is far from enough to understand how to balance the use of water for energy purposes without having a critical impact on the environment and on society,” he said. “The interests of operators and politicians for a quick win has overtaken the national interest in the proper utilization of water.”

09/04/2020 - 14:02

09 April 2020 - 14:02

Prishtina Insight is a digital and print magazine published by BIRN Kosovo, an independent, non-governmental organisation. To find out more about the organization please visit the official website. Copyright © 2016 BIRN Kosovo.