We will defend Neretvica at the cost of our lives and no small hydroelectric power plant will be built!

Author: Hazim Okanović

At the time when the documentation for the construction of small hydroelectric power plants on the Neretvica River began to be prepared, the children who were born at that time are now studying for master’s degrees at the faculties of Sarajevo and Mostar. None of the originally planned 17 mHPs have been built in the meantime. In a conversation with the representatives of the “Neretvica – Pusti me da tečem” Citizens’ Association, Safet Sarajlić and Ibrahim Turk, we learn about the retrospective of the events related to the plan to build 15 ecocidal small hydropower plants in the river basin, the length of which is slightly more than 27 kilometers. After unsuccessful attempts by representatives of local authorities and the management of Elektroprivreda BiH from 2010 to 2018, there were no events until February 2020. The people, the Klišani, reacted to their activities, marking the beginning of the end of this ecocide project, which entailed cramming the entire Neretvica basin into pipes with a diameter of up to 1.8 meters, with a total length of about 34 kilometers of pipelines. In October 2022, the clients of the small hydropower plant construction project were left without almost all permits for its implementation. Safet Sarajlić explains that the Law on Amendments to the Law on Electricity in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which prohibits the construction of small hydropower plants, is the result of the struggle of river activists from the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In addition, the law prohibits the planning and construction of new small hydropower plants. However, the adopted legal ban does not apply to Neretvica, Bunski Kanali, Kruščica near Vitez and other cases where there are already signed concession agreements. He explains that the members of the citizens’ movement were aware that it is not an easy task to overturn the Law, but it is better to redirect it so that it benefits the river activists.

Driving force – leadership in humanity

“As a man who was born near the river Neretvica, I have to say that rivers on planet Earth are the lifeblood without which life is unimaginable. The Neretvica River is 27.5 kilometers long. It springs from under Zec mountain at 1510 meters above sea level. By building 15 small hydroelectric plants, we would actually run out of water. By issuing concessions for the construction of 15 small hydroelectric power plants on our river, the Konjic Municipality gives all the mountain streams sources to Elektroprivreda Bosnia and Herzegovina. Talking about the construction of small hydroelectric power plants on a stream is a story about providing a source. If that were to happen, the concessionaire is automatically the owner of the spring, and that’s where the problem lies because no one above the water catchment has the right to take a drop of water,” says Sarajlić. In the following, he states that this particular concessionaire will say that it is his right, that he bought it or it was given to him. Activists of this Association are fighting against destruction because if an excavator enters the river, it no longer exists. He points out that Bosnia and Herzegovina is the sixth country in Europe in terms of drinking water and that the Neretvica river is drinkable even 25 kilometers from its source, which is a world phenomenon. After the first knowledge about the construction of mini hydropower plants on the Neretvica River in 2005 and 2006, the activists of this Association took concrete steps in order to ban their construction. A part of the citizens of this local community had the opportunity to visit the Vrbas river, which had already been devastated by that time, and they took pictures. After watching and analyzing the footage, they began collecting signatures for the petition.

Organization on alert

“More than 200 citizens from the Neretvica valley gave their support with their signatures. After that, our activities continued in 2020, when the investors started implementing their ‘project’. We practically organized ourselves and luckily for us, in the area of the Neretvice valley, we had six associations that were active in various areas. We made a coordination of all the associations in order to have the largest possible response of citizens at the start. We asked the presidents of all those associations to invite their membership to join us in saving the Neretvica River so that we could respond to the first blow. From February to June 2020, we had space to work as coordination body and to provide physical protection on the Neretvica River. After that, we registered as a citizens’ movement ‘Neretvica – pusti me da tečem / let me flow’. The movement has over 1,000 members with an active membership card. In addition, we have over 5,000 followers on social networks who are in some way supporting our fight”, says Turak.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a country that exports electricity. In the past year (2021), 17,055.44 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity were produced in Bosnia and Herzegovina, i.e. about 17 TWh. A total of 12 TWh is used for the needs of the Bosnian market. On the other hand, the entire remaining volume of 5 TWh is exported through a private company. “So, our electricity companies have allowed a private individual to export our electricity. Now compare the price at which the electricity company sells electricity to private parties even in this global energy crisis, and at what price it is charged further in Austria, the Czech Republic and further on in Europe. On the other hand, the citizens of BiH are threatened with having to pay an additional 1,334 BAM if they overuse the electricity for heating,” Sarajlić points out.

Ibrahim Turak states that the Neretvica River is life for the local population and money for politicians. Neretvica is synonymous with their right to life. Unfortunately, the current construction of small hydroelectric power plants is one of the most profitable businesses, and unfortunately investors see the greatest interest in rivers. The energy mafia had a plan to build over 600 small hydroelectric power plants on the rivers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which would mean the destruction of over 200 of the most beautiful, clear, mountainous rivers. Imagine a map of Bosnia and Herzegovina and erase those rivers. It is one evil that has emerged as the most dangerous thing for our rivers. We want to prevent that because sources are something that is our primary goal. We have to preserve sources of drinking water for ourselves and for future generations, and that is the main reason we are fighting,” said Turak.

Networking of non-governmental organizations and European Union policy

Networking of associations in Bosnia and Herzegovina created one of the key moments that contributed to the harmonization of a single position with which the state institutions were approached in order to come up with a law prohibiting the construction of mini hydropower plants. “We don’t have a leader. The leader is the people. We as a movement have the greatest merit thanks to the people, who found strength and knew who was standing across the road and in the middle of the banner that reads: Blood or water. It is a clear message that we will not give up because it is impossible to go against the people who are ready to give their lives but not the river”, says Sarajlić. Ibrahim Turak also agrees with him, stating that the networking turned out to be the best move. “The result of our organization is the fact that the Law on Amendments to the Law on Electricity in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina was adopted, which prohibits the construction of mini-hydroelectric power plants. The policy of the European Union supports us, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as a potential member, must follow its recommendations,” Turak said at the end.

It is important to say that the campaign “15 swimming areas instead of 15 hydroelectric power plant” was launched, with the aim of arranging locations along the Neretvica River where generations grew up. The construction of beaches, fountains and jumping jacks at swimming pools, which are visited by hundreds of people every day in the summer season, has shown that the Neretvica valley has much more significant non-energy potential. All activities are implemented by the residents of the Neretvica Valley by organizing work actions and collecting funds. Donations mainly come from individuals, primarily people who live in this area and the numerous diaspora.