Free rivers, free minds
Almost 3,000 new hydro-power plants are planned on Balkan rivers. One of the people warning about the possible consequences of such developments and interventions in waterways is Rok Rozman, former Olympic athlete, biologist and the initiator of the Balkan Rivers Tour. Together with a group of other kayaking enthusiasts, he organises descents on wild, dam-free rivers in the Balkans. With his genuine, carefree smile and unwavering determination, he is helping to free people’s minds.
The theme of this year’s Slovenian Pavilion at the Biennale of Architecture is living with water. What does living with water mean?
I believe that water has been taken for granted for far too long. This should not be the case. There is no life without water. Water links all living organisms, which makes it very interesting. Water is a molecule consisting of two parts of hydrogen and one part of oxygen, but it is also a cloud, rain, stream, a lake, ocean and glacier. Water is essential for life: not only for drinking, but also for the environment. It is no coincidence that all civilisations developed alongside water. People feel the connection that they carry inside. I have been fortunate to be learning about water from the kayak. Wild, untamed water carries the most energy, and I see it as the liveliest part of our planet. It is the element that drives the endless circulation of matter, the cycle that is the perpetuum mobile. Living with water as a molecule, as a source of water and an element in the environment is inevitable, but pleasant and inspiring at the same time.
You have done a lot of travelling, and explored landscapes abundant with water and those suffering from a shortage. What attitudes do people around the world have to water?
The image of the landscape is determined by the quantity of accessible water. I explored the parts of the world with kayak where humid air masses strike high mountain ranges. On the coastal side of the ranges, there are lush green landscapes with rivers, canyons and diverse life; while the other sides often lies dry, monotonous land that is abound with life only in the proximity of bigger watercourses.
I find it very interesting how the availability of water translates into a local lifestyle. It is wonderful that water influences people living in all parts of the world, regardless of the general culture of their ethnic group: water, and the availability of water surpass some other demographic characteristics.
What attitude to water did you perceive at home, what attitude do Slovenes have?
Slovenes are blessed with an abundance of high-quality fresh water. Unfortunately, this is reflected in our attitude, as we use it extremely irresponsibly. We can use the water network without restriction, dam rivers in any way we please, and use it to our own advantage. There are also places in Slovenia with less available water, where people are more protective and respectful of water: we could learn a lot from them.
Do you think that Slovenian environment policy focuses enough on water protection?
Not only do I think it does not, I know it does not. Despite the abundance of water available in the country, we have faced difficulties in supplying high-quality water for several years. According to biological indicators, the region of Podravje has failed to meet freshwater standards for years, particularly due to intensive farming, and the many dams that prevent rivers from filling groundwater sources. Rather than act to root out the cause, our government simply raised the permitted values of nitrates to ‘resolve’ the problem.
With regard to dams, the situation is similar: Slovenia still sees hydro-power plants as a huge opportunity. While the rest of the world is slowly beginning to understand their shortcomings, so they are being demolished (over one hundred dams have been demolished in the USA in the last five years; in Western Europe, the trend is similar), we want to build them on every stream with the slightest change in elevation, even if the streams dry up in the summer. Slovenian politicians and governmental environment agencies often fail to have any long-term agenda or outlook.
An astounding number of hydro-power plants are projected in the Balkans, as many as 2,700 new ones. Why do you think that we are in such a rush to build them when it is becoming increasingly clear that water energy is not as ‘clean’ as we once imagined?
I have thought about what the real reason could be for a long time, but I find myself returning to the same reasons: huge profits from construction relying on grants, EU funding, political pressure, and an intricate network of corruption. Hydro-power plants that require a dam, penstocks, pipes, roads and additional infrastructure, new bridges etc., have been built for centuries, so an effective money-laundering method has been developed, which, for example, cannot be applied to solar-power plants, where it is common knowledge how much a square metre of panels and screws cost. Unfortunately, this is very banal, and has nothing to do with resolving the climate crisis or green energy.
The Balkan rivers tour draws attention to the impact of building hydro power-plants on Balkan rivers. What do you think about the arguments in favour of hydro-power plants? What can be an alternative to hydro power?
I am not a fanatic who wants people to go back to living in caves. Far from it. Naturally, I can recognise the advantages of hydro-power plants. But there are not many, and they do not outweigh the disadvantages: they provide electricity that everyone consumes; they do not billow out black smoke like thermal power plants and they do not use fossil fuel. The alternative is to apply knowledge and reason, and to realise that politics cannot do everything, but that there are experts who may know how to help. The solution is to reduce electricity consumption, as it is excessive and used when not necessary. We do not need to wait for politics to provide an initiative; every individual can take simple measures.
All existing power plants, including and, in particular, hydro-power plants can be renewed and equipped with advanced technology that can greatly improve efficiency. It also makes sense to invest in developing solar-power plants, and sustainable production and the recycling of silicon, which presents a big problem. We should be aware that every method of generating electricity has a negative impact, and strive to reduce it.
Why are dams so bad? Can you answer as a biologist, as an athlete, as a private individual?
The other, dirty side of hydro-power plants that they ‘forgot’ to tell us about in schools and in many propaganda materials is that hydro-power plants produce a lot of greenhouse gases although they do not run on fossil fuel: comparisons show that, globally, dams and pondages pollute the environment with carbon dioxide and methane as much as air traffic. How is this possible? It is not that difficult to understand that dams create a lake that floods riparian forests, meadows, fertile soil, etc. After a few years, all this organic matter begins to rot, as it has been deprived of oxygen, and the by-product of this process are two potent greenhouse gases that are slowly released from the reservoir directly into the air. People often say that what you do not see or know does not hurt: although there is no putrid smell, such projects make an immense contribution to warming the atmosphere, so they can hardly be advertised as clean energy.
Responding to the question as a private individual, I must first say that dams are bad because they destroy the essential parts of rivers: their flows. It is the same as if we blocked a vein and expected everything to run the same. Such an intervention cannot remain without consequences.
It is clear to me as a biologist that dams hold back the transport of sediments from the mountains to the oceans. This is a highly significant process of transporting essential minerals thousands of miles to the oceans to start other significant processes. A river is not merely a flow of water but also a flow of sediments, with the bed of every untamed river ‘travelling’ as much as several miles annually. In stilled rivers, sediments stop travelling and sink at the bottom of the reservoir, creating thick deposits, while on the other side of the dam, the water only carries the sediment away but there is no new intake, so the riverbed deepens, which can lead to lower groundwater levels. A dam does not only block the flow downstream but also upstream. Many aquatic organisms travel though the river, with many fish species migrating between the upper stream and the ocean. Further north, salmon is such an example, while here in Slovenia, we have migratory eels. Young salmon are born high in the mountains and soon began to travel downstream to reach the ocean where they mature into fish weighing ten kilograms or more. After four years, they return to river here they were born, swimming upstream over rapids and waterfalls to the stretch where they hatched in order to spawn and begin a new cycle of life, which is, remarkably supported by their death. Salmon die after spawning, bringing ten kilograms of nutrients to the river, and their disappearance is a loss for these habitats. Multiply the salmon in question by millions of fish that used to freely swim upstream, taking nutrients and fertilisers up the river and you will see that this is the source of variety of riparian forests in the North. Such positive transport of substances contrary to the force of gravity is unparalleled. Unfortunately, we have almost completely destroyed it by building dams, as adult fish can no longer reach the stretches of rivers where they hatched. Some say fish ladders have resolved the issue, but fish ladders are rarely very effective: in their evolution over millions of years fish have not had the opportunity to learn to use a complicated system of canals or even lifts that take them over the dam to the other side. Even if the fish manage to overcome the obstacle this way, they do not find what they expected, i.e. shallow water filled with oxygen, but rather a deep, clouded lake with thick deposits of silt, where they do not want to spawn.
It is clear to me as a kayaker that a tamed river is no longer a river but rather a lake. Instead of a deafening, awe-inspiring mass of water lies a peaceful lake, and this tranquillity always seems so artificial. Sun-lit mornings in the valley have been replaced by morning fog produced by the lake – therefore, local residents burn more fossil energy products to heat their homes – and unusual winds during the day. The promised boom of sailboat tourism never materialises, and in a few years the lake begins to smell. And then someone here or there says that perhaps the kayakers were right all those years ago…
Conservationists are sometimes incorrectly labelled as the enemies of progress that seek to return to a romantic notion of nature. Can you dispute this?
Douglas Tompkins once said: “In response to people saying ‘you can’t go back,’ I say, ‘Well what happens if you get to the cliff and you take one step forward? Or, do you do a 180° turn and take one step forward?’ Which way are you going? Which is progress?” There is nothing wrong with progress, but a lot is wrong with the direction it has taken. Being seen as the enemies is the open wound of environmentalists. Naturally, this is not true, which is why I believe that our movement has been well accepted: because we try to educate people in an accessible way first and then change things for the benefit of the majority. Progress has made us more efficient, we can use less to create more, which does not please capitalism used to enormous consumption and spending. However, at the end, we, the small consumers, are in charge, as the system needs us to drive it. This is about small decisions we make every day.
Together with your colleagues, you have managed to stop the construction of seven dams already. What are your plans for the future?
Despite initial doubts that change is possible we have been successful and have stopped the construction of several dams. The projected numbers keep changing, and a river is never truly rescued. When we manage to stop building a dam in collaboration with many small and big NGOs, this means stopping one project only, and perhaps a new one will be drawn up in a few years. I try not to worry about the numbers: if we make a single river dam-free, we can stop the construction of any dam, as the concept is practically the same. It is about freeing people’s minds: free minds can make rivers free of concrete dams. Therefore, we will continue to raise awareness about dams in a user-friendly way, coupled with adventure and fun. Difficult and complicated things need an antidote, which is what our approach provides: colourful kayaks, rock ‘n’ roll and creativity are used to fight negativity.
Is activism significant? Does it make sense to fight, although we may change nothing?
We like to say that the system has succeeded in taming us, taking away our willpower and making us indifferent. I believe that we did it ourselves. If we have taken our willpower away, we can also bring it back. Activism is the lifeline. It is simple and honest and anyone can do it. Activism means using your mind assertively and creatively for common benefit and, as such, it is an exceptional tool facilitating higher-quality life. And it also makes you feel really good!
What is the power of printed media, such as this publication, in raising awareness?
The media have immense power because they influence public opinion by satisfying human curiosity every day. Naturally, the media, and more often its owners, decide what to feed their readership. The media have come under immense pressure and it is becoming increasingly difficult to engage contentious topics. Therefore, I am very happy that your publication is taking the issue of rivers and their future to audiences that we have not addressed so far. This is about access to information, a wider perspective, and not about trying to convince everyone that dams are not good. This is a compilation of information and every individual is free to form their own opinion. The media can provide the best platform in this respect.
Where can the general public learn about water-related issues? What do you recommend? Both camps, the promoters and opponents of hydro-power plants, publish research supporting their arguments. Who to believe?
It is impossible to provide a single source. Reading unbiased articles and studies requires a lot of time, which most people do not have. On our website, we strive to publish professional and fact-checked content about the impact of dams, which is one of the filters one can apply. I guess intuition is the best filter. Ask yourself whom you trust more: us on bicycles, who will keep riding bicycles if we save the river, or someone in a new BMW, who will be able to buy a boat after the dam is finished.
Unfortunately, money can buy everything these days, even the results of surveys and public opinion. One thing that the hydro-power lobby has is money and influence. Many environmental impact assessments have been bought, as the companies preparing them need to survive, so they bow to pressure. Without a doubt, our opponents are clever and powerful.
How can architecture and architects as individuals help achieve responsible water management?
In my experience, architects usually have open minds and enjoy a reputation, which provides an opportunity to act as role models. Even if you are more critical of dams as individuals, this can lead to a positive chain reaction. Architecture is a very important part of our society and civilisation, and it governs our everyday life. I see architects a visionaries designing human landscape, which is an immensely significant job or mission. The design can be in harmony or in discord with nature. The decision lies with you: you can decide to fight or work with it. Nature, I mean.