Observations from the Fight against Hydropower in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Activism in post-socialist space activist networks Environmentalism Hydropower researching online river

About the authors

Jakob studies the M.A. in cultural anthropology and conducted ethnographic research on migration, volunteering and social engagement in Germany. He is interested in european history postcolonial theory and astrophysics. Alongside the studies he is involved in the academic self-administration for the student body. Besides university Jakob gives trainings for volunteers and group helpers in youth work and seminars on political education for young people.



Bosnia and Herzegovina’s (BiH) rivers have not seen much human intervention, such as river engineering, straightening, and damming, up until recently. This lack of intervention has resulted in a high level of biodiversity and intact river ecosystems. However, this may change, as the mountainous terrain offers a great capacity for the production of hydropower. There are currently a number of planned hydropower projects in the country. Most of these are small hydropower plants on small rivers and tributaries, which produce up to 10 MW of electrical power capacity (Schwarz, 2020, p.15). The process of European integration – the European Union (EU) accession of not-yet-EU-member states – is taking place in BiH. The implementation of European regulations on the energy market, sustainability, and environmental protection are already happening in BiH. In this article, I will explore how European laws and regulations (and the ways in which they are applied) have an impact on the hydropower boom in BiH.

In many places where small hydropower plants are planned, people have started to organize against hydropower investments and the destruction of riverine ecosystems (Rajković, 2020). Local initiatives and nationwide coalitions have been formed to organize protests and take legal action against such developments, while transnational environmental NGOs support their struggle.

The COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible for my colleagues and I to travel to BiH and conduct participant observation. Therefore, the whole research project took place in the digital sphere, which changed the ethnographic procedure significantly. Nonetheless, I had the opportunity to get in contact with activists fighting for protection of river ecosystems and to find out how environmental activism takes place under the political circumstances in BiH and to show the motivations and visions of environmental activists in BiH.

Environment at the EUropean Border

The EU plays a rather ambiguous role in the construction of hydropower plants and the preservation of the environment in BiH. In 2006, BiH joined the European Energy Community, a EU-backed international organisation aiming to harmonize the European energy market. Following this, an Energy Community directive defined a binding goal for BiH to reach 40% renewable energy production (Miljević, 2018, p.7) and urged local governments to foster further construction of hydropower plants. In BiH the operators of hydropower plants receive a guaranteed fee and a priority to supply energy. Hydropower investments are therefore very profitable and secure, but they are also expensive for energy consumers (Miljević, 2018, p.18).

Hydropower’s contribution to overall energy production in BiH is rather low – currently only 2.6% – while hydropower receives 81% of all incentives for renewable energy production in the country (Gallop et al., 2019, p. 17). Hydropower construction leads to irreversible destruction of river ecosystems. The river’s flow is reduced when water runs through the pipes and turbines. The water quality is decreased and even local communities’ supply of drinking water is put at risk. Hydropower construction disturbs river connectivity and destroys natural habitats of freshwater species (Kelly-Richards et al., 2017, p.255). Moreover, the impact of hydropower affects other natural areas when roads, pipelines, and electrical pylons need to be constructed (Chamberlain, 2020, p. 3). From both an economic and an ecological point of view, wind and solar energy are a much preferable alternative (Chamberlain, 2020, p. 13).

The EU-wide Water Framework Directive (WFD) assesses the ecological value of European rivers and sets a framework through which river ecosystems receive protection through the Natura 2000 network (Schwarz, 2012, p.15, 17). However, the WFD does not apply to Bosnia and Herzegovina, nor can Bosnian areas receive protection through the Natura 2000 network, which is only mandatory for full EU-Members (Schwarz, 2012, p.31; Schwarz, 2015 p. 18). Environmental NGOs are trying to get Bosnian rivers included under the same protection that is granted by the EU-WFD (Gallop et al., 2019, p. 16). Although BiH is dependent on EU-framework conditions for its energy production, common EU-frameworks for nature protection are not compulsory. This increases the likelihood that hydropower projects that cannot be implemented in the EU will be implemented in BiH (Gallop et al, 2019, p.16).

Accessing the Field

My work started with a mapping of different actors, particular struggles, and networks within the fight against hydropower plants in Bosnia and Herzegovina. For this purpose, I used social networks to follow activists, journalists, and local initiatives. Bosnia-wide environmental groups and other political organizations, as well as their international supporters and many local civic initiatives, form The Coalition for the Protection of the Rivers. The members of this coalition also cover a wide range of different initiatives. These include regional environmental organisations; local initiatives that focus on protecting a single river or opposing one certain hydropower project; and also sportive, hiking or touristic associations (Coalition for the Protection of the Rivers, n.d.).

The most recent event that I discovered when I started my research was a large action of civil disobedience against hydropower constructions along the Neretvica River. I came across multiple pictures depicting this action (czzs.org, 2020).

In June 2020, river protection activists from all over BiH celebrated a big success: The parliament of the Federation of Bosnia – one of the two administrative entities of BiH – passed a decision to ban further construction of small hydropower plants (Dervisbegovic, 2020).

With this information, some basic knowledge, and some presumptions, I turned to the field and contacted various Bosnia-wide organizations and local river protection initiatives and enquired as to whether any of the activists were interested in discussing my ideas and questions with me in English. I got several replies from initiatives and Bosnia-wide organisations and we decided to meet up via video chat to talk about my research questions. Finally, I conducted interviews with activists from Foča and Sarajevo and employees of international and Bosnian environmental organizations from Banja Luka and Sarajevo.

Local Environmentalism

Foča is a small town in the Southeast of Bosnia at the upper Drina, not far from the border to Montenegro. Locals here have founded an informal initiative to protest against a hydropower project at the river Bjelava, a tributary of the river Drina. A local company that runs the hydropower constructions on the Bjelava River is located in Foča and this company is connected with other businesses in the region, which many people are dependent on. Although the hydropower entrepreneurs have a strong local influence, the activists that make up the initiative say that they receive a large amount of support from the residents of Foča.

„They support us. But there is a problem because the investor is a very powerful guy in town, […] So the people are scared, because a lot of people work for him or work in some kind of different projects with him“

explains Jovan, one activist from the Initiative. (Interview, 22.01.21)

Another activist, Dragana, describes how the initiative receives many messages of solidarity, and help with organizing events. She also says that they received many signatures on a petition that they launched against the hydropower projects in the municipality.

The Sutjeska-National Park is the biggest national park in BiH and protects the mountainous area in the Bosnian-Montenegrin borderland where the Neretva and its tributaries spring from. Dragana and Jovan explain that there were plans a few years ago to construct hydropower plants even within the national park. The hydropower investments in the national park triggered massive protests, which reached far beyond Foča, where activists from different cities joined the fight for the protection of the Sutjeska national park. This environmental fight also strengthened the struggle of the activists from the local initiative in Foča.

In spring 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, the construction activities at the Bjelava River began. Construction machines started to cut down trees and to prepare a gravel path for the construction of the hydropower plant. Dragana and Jovan claim that the construction work was carried out under the guise of geological surveys because the company did not have a construction permit at that moment. The activists organized a protest and blocked the construction site. Together with the Coalition for the Protection of the Rivers, they took legal action against the hydropower investments on the Bjelava River. Dragana mentions that she is afraid the investors might have too much influence on the local court and she worries it will decide in the favour of the investor because of this. She hopes, however, that a higher court will give more consideration to the legal case for environmental protection and will therefore rule in favour of the activists.

River protection – A fight only for the Rivers?

Another web-based initiative is the campaign Artists for Balkan Rivers, in which many renowned celebrities from Bosnia and beyond show their support for the struggle for clean and intact rivers (balkanrivers.net, 2020b). This includes contributions such as: a singing performance at the bank of a wild river, a photo collage depicting the beauty of nature, and a personal message by the artists encouraging people to actively support the fight for the rivers.

The artists and activists advocating for river protection are aware of BiH’s rich nature and biodiversity. Indeed, due to its geographical location, BiH connects different habitats and offers a wealth of biodiversity, with over 1800 endemic species from the Balkan Peninsula (Vukmir et al., 2009: 35). Or in the words of Nane, an activist from Sarajevo:

„If you look at the biodiversity of Bosnia we are one of the richest countries of the world“

(Interview, 16.02.2021)

The river ecosystems in BiH are in a much better condition than their counterparts in Western Europe (Schwarz, 2012: 20). Artists for Balkan Rivers remind their audience of this characteristic of the Balkan region and aim to create awareness and support through this project.

Other artists use their position to give rather political messages that connect the fight for the rivers to the wider political situation in BiH.

Our politicans are criminals, who are selling our country piece by piece. Our nationalism has no limits and we make it possible for them with our stupidity. If we are not smart, let’s stay beautiful. Let’s save our beautiful country and our beautiful rivers.”

(balkanrivers.net, 2020c)

Sabina Šabić, the coordinator of the „Artists for Balkan Rivers“ campaign described how she wants to make the artists good ambassadors for the rivers.

The first level was educating artists what’s happening, […] and those were long mails, with lots of documents you know […] Because I could have easily called Srđjan and say: We have a problem with rivers, can you help and just…“ you know, but I didnt want to take that easy way. I want them to educate really what is happening, what is meaning hydroplant. What are the consequences, why it is so connected to corruption. […] But also I always say: you can forget all that I sent you and just let it out, and thats what happened with Srđan.“

(Interview, 08.03.2021)

Srđan Jevđević refers to the beauty of BiH’s nature and speaks about what other interlocutors described: The activists point out that nature is a common good, which it is necessary to preserve, but it does not receive adequate protection. Particular struggles like the fight for the rivers aim for the protection of common goods such as nature but also address “criminal politicians” (balkanrivers.net, 2020c) and the structural problems they represent (Horvat et al., 2018, p. 85). Several activists explain that they see activism for river protection as a powerful movement, which gives motivation and hope for the future. Nane from Sarajevo is sanguine regarding the fact that the different communities of the country are fighting for a defined and shared goal.

This fight for the rivers is really a story that kind of united the people, because its really rare to have citizens from Višegrad and Foča from Republika Srpska going to protest in Sarajevo or vice-versa so its really kind of nice to see this […] because we are really burdened by the war and nationalism and what not. The story about the rivers is something that goes beyond that, and people really realize that is the life we are talking about, cause no water no life. Its simple as that.“

(Interview, 16.02.2021)

Visions for the Rivers and beyond

The activists whom I interviewed see the nature of their country as capital and as potential. They know that further energy production will not benefit local communities, but foreign investors. Many of them share a vision of a green and sustainable economy, which could develop on the foundation of intact rivers, and include industries such as organic agriculture. The revival of tourism and other activities, like hiking and rafting in an ecologically compatible way, could reinvigorate the local economy and prevent the younger generation from emigrating. Activism for the rivers sees nature and rivers as a common good, which has to be protected against the interests of a minority – the investors and other beneficiaries of hydropower. It is clear that the struggle for rivers is able to mobilize many people and that there is also a high awareness in the part of the population that is not directly affected. The activists for the protection of rivers often arouse emotions by promoting a caring relationship with nature, but the support for their cause is also rooted in a feeling of discontent with inefficient political structures and corruption. All of the interlocutors emphasised that corruption made the construction of many new hydropower plants possible, but they also recognised a wider structural problem. Legal work is one useful tool that activists can use to stop hydropower projects. Therefore, the fight for rivers also involves a fight for transparency and trust in the judicial system.


balkanrivers.net, (2020a) Save the Blue Heart of Europe. URL https://balkanrivers.net/en/contact (Accessed 9 April 2021).

balkanrivers.net, (2020b) Artists for Balkan Rivers. Artists for Balkanrivers. URL https://balkanrivers.net/en/artists (Accessed 9 April 2021).

balkanrivers.net, (2020c) Artists for Balkan Rivers, Srđan Jevđević. Artists for Balkanrivers. URL https://balkanrivers.net/en/artists/srdan-jevdevic-kultur-shock-for-balkan-rivers (Accessed 9 April 2021)

Chamberlain, L. (2020) Death by a thousand cuts. Black catalogue of small hydropower plants. URL: https://balkanrivers.net/sites/default/files/Riverwatch_Black_catalogue_PDF.pdf (Accessed 9 April 2021)

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Kelly-Richards, S., Silber-Coats, N., Crootof, A., Tecklin, D., Bauer, C. (2017) Governing the transition to renewable Energy: A review of impacts and policy issues in the small hydropower boom. Energy Policy 101, p. 251-264

Miljević, D. (2018) Analysis of the socio-economic justification of the existing system of concession fees and incentives for small hydro power plants in Bosnia and Herzegovina. URL https://balkanrivers.net/sites/default/files/BIH_Analysis_English.pdf (Accessed 11 April 2021)

Rajković, I. (2020) Rivers to the People: Ecopopulist Universality in the Balkan Mountains. URL https://culanth.org/fieldsights/rivers-to-the-people-ecopopulist-universality-in-the-balkan-mountains (Accessed 06 May 2021)

Richter, S. (2018) Bosnien und Herzegowina und die EU. Eine ambivalente Beziehung. In: Flessenkemper, T., Moll, N. (Eds.), Das Politische System Bosnien Und Herzegowinas. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, pp. 243-273.

Schwarz, U. (2020) Balkan HPP Update 2020. URL https://balkanrivers.net/uploads/files/3/Balkan_HPP_Update_2020.pdf (Accessed 9 April 2021)

Schwarz, U. (2012) Balkan Rivers – The Blue Heart of Europe. Hydromorphological status and dam projects report. URL https://v2.balkanrivers.net/sites/default/files/BalkanRiverAssessment29032012web.pdf (Accessed 9 April 2021)

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  • Interview with Dragana Skenderija, coordinator of the Coalition for the protection of the Rivers, 18.11.2021
  • Interview with Dragana and Jovan, activists from the initiative against small hydropower in Foča, 22.01.2021
  • Interview with Nane, activist from Sarajevo, 16.02.2021
  • Interview with Sabina Šabić, coordinator of Artists for Balkan Rivers, Sarajevo, 08.03.2021
  • Interview with Jelena Ivanić, “Save the Blue Heart”-campaign coordinator in BiH, from Banja Luka, 19.03.2021