Testing the power of water

Danube waters have historically been used to generate electricity. Seen as a clean and renewable energy alternative, hydropower has also had impacts on river ecology. Current EU water management law wants to correct that: by finding
a way to combine hydropower generation with sustainable river management.

The Gabcikovo dam system in Slovakia, operating since 1992. River infrastructure often has many purposes: power generation, navigation and flood defence.

Near the village of Novo Virje, the Croatian government wants to build a new hydropower plant costing over half a billion euros. It would be the largest dam of its kind on the Drava River, one of the Danube's main tributaries. With a 25 km long reservoir and flooding over 2700 hectares, it would produce 138 MW of electricity.

Some 22 dams already slice up the Drava from Lienz, Austria, to the confluence of the Mura and Drava in Legrad, Croatia. Opponents don't want a 23rd.

Biodiversity would be profoundly impacted, argue local and international NGOs. Under the EU's 'Habitat Directive', at least ten habitat types including softwood forests, and 30 animal species including otters and Danube salmon, would be reduced, altered or destroyed. The same would happen to 26 bird species under the EU's 'Bird Directive' including the white-tailed eagle. "Nature here would meet the same disastrous fate as it did around Donja Dubrava," says WWF.

The Donja Dubrava dam was the last and largest dam built in 1989 on the Drava. With a 16 sq km reservoir, a canal diverts over 98% of the water from the original riverbed to the dam. "Around the dam site, the river is basically dead, its vital natural processes and ecosystem functions lost," says WWF.

Willow forests were permanently flooded. Species dependent on dynamic habitats became homeless or extinct. Colonies of common and little terns are gone. With the river disconnected from the groundwater, the result was reduced self-purification capacity, drinking water quantity and quality and floodplain forests.

Ecological impacts.
Over 700 large dams and weirs impound the Danube's main tributaries. Many were built at the river's upper reaches, harnessing energy at mountain drop-offs. Germany's Lech River is impounded along 90% of its length by 32 dams.

As for the Danube River, there are 59 dams between its source and its first 1000 km - an average of one every 16 km. After that, there are only three - Gabcikovo and two at the Iron Gates. In total, about 30% of the Danube's entire length is impounded.

The Gabcikovo dam system in Slovakia, operating since 1992, diverts 80% of Danube waters to an artificial canal and reservoir. According to the ICPDR's 'Danube River Basin Analysis', the old 40 km riverbed is drying out. The surface and groundwater table dropped 2 to 4 m resulting in the loss of bank forests and of hydro-dynamics in the disconnected, artificially irrigated and impounded side-arm systems (altogether 8000 ha on both sides of the river). Water quality was reduced and many former wet habitats are overgrown with vegetation.

In 1972, the Iron Gate I dam was completed where the Danube meets the Nera River in Romania. The biggest hydro plant on the Danube, its backwater extends 310 km up to Novi Sad and covers 330 sq km. Installed power is 2x1050 MW. The Iron Gate II reservoir is 80 km long covering 79 sq km. Some 325 million tons of sediment piled up behind the dam from 1972 to 1994 causing drinking water supply problems in communities upstream.

Dams and EU law.
According to the Danube River Basin Analysis, one of the biggest factors affecting the ecological status of rivers is hydropower generation. The other two main driving forces are flood protection and navigation. Dams, weirs, sluices and canalisation all create hydromorphological alterations of rivers.

The analysis further found that there's an 86% chance that the entire Danube is 'at risk' or 'possibly at risk' of not meeting the objectives of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) because of hydromorphological alterations. The WFD is the EU's main water protection legislation.

Many river stretches show a 'substantial change in character' and have been 'provisionally identified' as 'heavily modified water bodies' (HMWB). HMWBs total 78% of the Danube including the chains of dams in Germany and Austria and the Iron Gates system. For Danube tributaries, the total length of HMWBs is 6300 km.

Numerous Danube stakeholders are involved in implementing the WFD, from national governments to NGOs. Recently, a new NGO, VGB PowerTech, joined the group.

Credit: WWF Austria
Satellite images of the area around the Donja Dubrava dam, before and after its construction in 1989. With a 16 sq km reservoir, a canal diverts over 98% of the water from the original riverbed to the dam.

A repressive instrument?
VGB PowerTech is an association of companies mainly providing power and heat. Its 401 member companies from the EU and Switzerland together have installed power capacity of 394,000 MW from energy sources ranging from fossil fuels to hydro to biomass.

The WFD, according to VGB PowerTech, focuses too much on ecological goals. Human uses of water are subordinate. By defining the target condition as the natural water body, the WFD basically says that any use of water disturbs the water body. "There is a major risk that a source of energy will be subjected to extreme burdens through excessive demands in favour of one-sided species protection," notes VGB PowerTech.

WFD demands found excessive include undisturbed fish migration for which new ladders and connections with adjoining water bodies could cost millions of euros, they say. Ensuring that discharge meets the needs of water body ecology could mean huge power generating losses - up to 50% at some plants and the 'financial end' for many small plants. The WFD ban on activities that deteriorate water bodies would seriously limit hydro expansion. The WFD also wants cost coverage for water services which means charging external costs on water users. For VGB PowerTech, the demands of such a 'repressive instrument' will lead to 'an absurd amount of financial resources being applied'.

The WFD also contradicts EU energy policies for which hydropower is an 'indispensable element', says VGB PowerTech. This includes the EU's commitment to the Kyoto Protocol - the share of renewable power must grow from 15 to 22% by 2010. Another is to reduce reliance on energy imports.

VGB PowerTech believes hydro is Europe's most important renewable energy source. In 2003, it had an 11% share of total energy used. Austria had the But WFD burdens, says VGB PowerTech, will make hydropower less cost competitive than other energy sources, including fossil fuels. Hydro expansion would become 'practically impossible' and its overall share of European energy would probably decrease.

The energy provider association thinks there is 'still room for manoeuvring' and has publicised its demands. One is their involvement in WFD implementation processes from the start. "Our representation as an ICPDR member is needed to have acceptable development in the frame of ICPDR activities." Other demands are the avoidance of competitive disadvantages and additional financial burdens, and that there be a total costs perspective in the economic analysis and evaluation of alternative energies.

"The WFD must be implemented in such a way that hydropower retains the position in Europe that it enjoys today." VGB PowerTech sees the new WFD classification of HMWBs as one pragmatic tool. Here the use of the water body is taken into account and meeting WFD objectives could be made easier.

Is hydro the answer?
On February 27, executives from Austrian Hydropower told Austrian news agency ORF that Austria cannot meet rising annual energy demands of 2% through hydropower development. "We would need to build two new plants the size of the Freudenau plant every year to cover needs and this is impossible." They added that Danube capacity is already fully used, no additional large hydro projects are planned, and that new small hydro projects would not provide significant benefits.

Until 2001, Austria was a net energy exporter. Now the country imports, in part from Germany and France - countries expected to export less in the near future given their own rising demands. One answer is to save energy.
Austrians use 4700 kWh/year compared to the EU average of 4040 kWh/year or the 2900 kWh/year used by its eastern neighbour Hungary.
But that probably won't solve the whole problem.

New energy will need to come from somewhere. How will the Danube and its tributaries end up supplying some of it? The answer will probably be the result of some interesting discussions soon to come around the ICPDR table.

The environmental objectives of the EU WFD have to be reached by 2015. Therefore, the ICPDR - as coordinating body within the DRB - is developing the Danube River Basin Management Plan until 2009, which includes the Programme of Measures. Issue papers for all identified key water management issues are being prepared to guide the development of the Programme of Measures. The issue paper on hydromorphological alterations will be the first. The strategy will contribute to the reduction of current and future hydromorphological impacts integrating economic issues.

Solving issues connected to hydromorphological alterations - including hydropower - is controversial. The demand for a comprehensive dialogue is regarded as crucial by the ICPDR. Therefore, the involvement of all concerned stakeholders is taking place in order to reach WFD objectives in the DRB.

Paul Csagoly
is a communications specialist for the UNDP/GEF Danube Regional Project,
and a writer on European environmental issues since 1996.