Commentary: Skavica Dam – The Last Thing Albania Needs – Quit
Greenfield hydropower projects pose serious risks to people and nature that very often outweigh the economic benefits. In the worst case, vast tracts of land are flooded, many people have to abandon their homelands, rivers are turned into artificial reservoirs, wild animals are driven to extinction, and the country is left with foreign debts and a climate-vulnerable energy system.
Considering all these criteria, the Skavica dam project in Albania is extremely damaging. Nevertheless, according to the Albanian government, the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) is considering financing it, even though the project would fall under the DFC’s list of categorically prohibited projects.
Albania is heavily dependent on hydroelectricity, with 95% of its locally produced electricity being generated in this way. Its annual electricity production has suffered from the lack of water due to climate change and it will get worse according to the World Bank. Albania should invest in energy efficiency, wind and solar power plants and the reconstruction of existing dams, rather than building new ones.
The Dibra valley underwater
The Skavica hydroelectric project includes a large dam built in a pristine gorge with high cliffs next to the village of Skavica in the municipality of Kukës. The most significant impacts would be in the municipality of Dibër. The huge reservoir would impact, according to the municipality, up to 15,138 hectares (58 square miles) of land, mainly agricultural land and forests, but also 41 villages. With several thousand people displaced, Skavica could have the worst social impacts of any dam built in Europe in the 21st century.
So far, no official information on the design and location of the dam is available as the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) is expected to be completed by the end of 2022. But according to the developer of the project, the Albanian Energy Corporation (KESH), the dam will probably be 147 meters high.
Decisions made out of the public eye
In July 2021, apparently without any bidding process, a preliminary contract was signed between state-owned KESH and US construction giant Bechtel for the first phase of the project which includes carrying out a survey technical, the construction of access roads for the construction and the realization of an environmental and social impact study (ESIA). This was preceded by a special law approved by parliament (No. 38/2021), with the name of the company included in the law, thus eliminating open markets and competition. Already, a similar special law for the construction of the National Theater has been ruled unconstitutional by the Albanian Constitutional Court.
Bechtel has gained notoriety in southeastern Europe for its involvement in several unsuccessful and/or overpriced projects, such as in Kosovo, Romania and North Macedonia. This raises the risk of possible corruption and doubts about the value for money of the project, as well as the adequacy of the forthcoming environmental impact assessment. If agreements for the project have already been reached behind closed doors, the ESIA is bound to find the “right” answer, regardless of its actual conclusions.
Local people have staged numerous protests in Albania and the United States against the planned plant and the decision-making. In 2020, the police fined two of the organizers of one of these demonstrations, “as a way”, according to them, “for the institutions to scare people into reacting to official decisions”. The Opposition to the Skavica Dam Facebook group has almost 4,000 followers and a petition has been signed by over 2,000 people.
Europe’s rarest cat on the verge of extinction
Apart from the unavoidable negative impacts on local communities and the violation of their human rights, the dam would also inundate floodplains, forests and pastures around the river where many endangered species in the rest of Europe are common.
But one of the animals is particularly endangered, in fact, it is the rarest cat in Europe. The Balkan lynx (Lynx lynx balcanicus) has less than 40 individuals remaining in the wild. The Black Drin Gorge, which features inaccessible cliffs and forests far from villages, is the only area where lynx can cross between Mavrovo National Park in North Macedonia and Munella Mountain in Albania. The construction of the dam would isolate the only two viable populations and condemn them to extinction.
The Skavica dam would also flood the most extensive floodplain forest in Albania – the forest along the Black Drin river composed of black alder (Alnus glutinous), black poplar (Populus nigra) and willows (Salix sp.). It is a priority habitat according to the European Habitats Directive. Conserving this forest is necessary to store more carbon in the soil, particularly critical in the country with the highest rate of deforestation in Europe (which led to the ban on logging in 2015).
It is surprising that Albania is still pushing the development of hydroelectricity. Hydroelectricity will not solve the country’s energy crisis and will endanger not only nature and wildlife, but also the people of Dibra who will be forced to leave behind their homes and the lands they depend on. It will be increasingly difficult to build new hydropower plants in the future, due to climate vulnerability, the region’s unique biodiversity and public resistance. Given the above situation, we anticipate that the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) will refrain from financing the Skavica hydroelectric plant.
The Save the blue heart of Europe aims to protect the most precious rivers of the Balkans against the construction of hydroelectric power stations. The campaign is coordinated by the NGOs Riverwatch and EuroNatur, and is carried out jointly with partner organizations in the Balkans.
This article was originally published on bankwatch.org and is republished with full permission.