Investigative storiesEcology
08 Aug 2023

Nature Under Attack: Experts Forced to Approve Construction of Environmentally Destructive Dam

Illustration: CINS
Many protected species including birds, owls, fish and bats live in the Ribnica river gorge, near Mionica. In spite of this, the state plans to build a dam there, which will endanger them all. CINS uncovers that environmental experts were forced to approve the construction.

After getting off the main road that leads to Divčibare from the Mionica village of Brežđe, there is a five-minute downhill drive. The road winds through vast green meadows and forests.

That is how you get to the Ribnica river gorge.

Ribnica is a mountain river, which is mostly shallow, but can cause massive problems when it overflows due to heavy rains. This poses a threat to areas nearby as well as those in the Kolubara District because Ribnica flows into the Kolubara River.

The gorge is surrounded by wooded hills, and its silence is “broken” only by the sounds of birds and insects from the uncut grass. The bubbling river can also be heard.

Children who live within 30 meters of the river swim in it. Their father, Branko Urošević, is nicknamed after it – everyone calls him River Bane.

“I was born here. My great grandfather came here. Both my grandfather and father (…) There used to be a mill here, but my great-grandfather moved here in the early thirties,” says Branko as he shows us around his little paradise – a home that is almost a hundred years old.

It is uncertain, however, how much longer he will be able to stay there.

Even when he was a child, in the 1980s, it was said that the state would build a dam on Ribnica and submerge part of the gorge. This way, every time there would be heavy rains, water would accumulate in the artificial lake and not flood the surrounding areas.

After that, Branko heard nothing about these plans for years. Until three or four years ago, to be exact. That is when, as he explains, land surveyors first showed up, then a man from the Municipality came and said that they were surveying for the dam. They were also called in to the Municipality to see the plan of what will be submerged. But those plans tend to come and go.

Branko Urošević with his cousin and son at the Ribnica river; photo: CINS

He says that he is startled by them every time, but he tries not to think about the construction of the dam and his potential eviction.

What Branko doesn’t know is that a fierce battle has already taken place regarding the dam. And nature lost.

A dam would endanger nature

In 2016, geographer Sava Simić was working at the Institute for Nature Conservation of Serbia when a project for the construction of a dam on Ribnica and the creation of an artificial lake appeared on his desk.

He had to decide whether to approve the so-called Detailed Regulation Plan which determines how the dam and lake will be built, or to reject it. A rejection would mean that a dam could not be built there.

This decision was not easy.

The purpose of the dam is not bad, but there are many protected animal species at the site of the Ribnica gorge.

In shallow water, white-throated dippers, common kingfishers, grey wagtails and white wagtails are on the hunt. The Eurasian eagle-owl, a large species of owl that also inhabits gorges, finds its prey in nearby caves. Bats live in the caves, while the Balkan spined loach – a small, elongated fish – lives in the river. All these animals are protected to prevent their extinction.

Ribnica river gorge; photo: CINS

Simić wanted to consult other experts from the Institute, five of them in total.

After that, he made a decision – he was not in favor of the dam being built in that location. He believed that it would have a “multitude of negative consequences for the overall natural values of the gorge (valley) of the Ribnica river”.

However, Simić quickly had to change his decision.

Documents obtained by CINS clearly show that he was forced to do so.

The turning point

The Municipality of Mionica appealed against Simić’s decision, stating that the Institute had already approved a Spatial Plan in 2006, which, among other things, foresaw the construction of the artificial lake.

Dušan Mijović, Head of the Geodiversity Department at the time and Simić’s superior, believed that their appeal was justified.

Simić did not want to agree to this. Together with the team of experts, with whom he had previously consulted, he believed that the correct decision had been made. Ten years had passed from 2006 until the moment when he made his decision. During that period, a part of the gorge became part of a network of environmentally significant areas.

The deadline for responding to the appeal was expiring. Mijović urged Simić to change his decision within two days.

Although the construction of the dam and the lake was unacceptable to him, on the same day, Simić decided to clear the way for the dam to be built. From his note, in which he describes the pressure he was placed under, it is clear that the opinion of experts was ignored in this case:

“It seems that not a single argument that led to this turnaround was related to nature conservation, that is, the professional work and reasoning of the Institute‘s associates.”

Rastko Ajtić, one of Simić’s colleagues with whom he consulted, now an assistant professor at the University of Kragujevac, tells CINS that in this case their profession lost. He explains that even during the ice age various types of plants and animals managed to survive in the Ribnica gorge due to its specific conditions. Because of this, it is seen as a nursery for endangered species and considered essential for conservation:

“If we stick to the law and basic biological principles, nothing should be built there.”

He is disappointed with all of this:

“You put in the work and you wonder what the point was and you ask yourself ‘what did I go to school for’.”

Sava Simić did not respond to the email we sent him, while his former colleagues did not wish to give us his phone number. We tried to reach Dušan Mijović through people from the Institute for Nature Conservation, as well as his associates from the Đerdap National Park, but none of them wanted to give us his number. We also contacted him via Facebook, but he did not respond to our message.

The Institute for Nature Conservation says that the decision was made in accordance with the law. On the other hand, they did not want to comment on Mijović’s insistence that Simić change his decision, given that neither of them is employed by that institution any longer.

The aftermath

At this moment, the construction of the dam in the Ribnica gorge seems certain. A document is currently being prepared that should show whether the project will cause irreparable damage to the environment, the so-called Environmental Impact Assessment.

The Urošević household in the Ribnica gorge; photo: CINS

The Municipality of Mionica responded to CINS by stating that whether the dam will be built depends on this study and the Feasibility Study, which is also being prepared.

The Municipality also stated that the construction of the dam was foreseen earlier, and that in recent years floods have caused millions in damages in the municipality, mostly in the Ribnica basin.

Urban planner Ksenija Radovanović tells CINS that at this stage there is little chance of stopping the project.

“If it is proven that the environment cannot be protected if the dam is built, in theory the project could be stopped.”

The Institute and the Municipality could find a compromise, says former assistant director of the Institute for Nature Conservation Goran Sekulić.

“I think that the decision would have to be reconsidered, regardless of the appeal being accepted and the Institute’s hand being forced. In regard to environmental protection, it is difficult to make decisions like that, a situation from 10 years ago is not relevant anymore.”

If the study is approved, the construction of the dam and the artificial lake could start soon. If that happens, part of the gorge and its nature will be submerged, and the Urošević family will be evicted. Part of the land they own will be under water.

Branko Urošević, or River Bane as everyone calls him, still does not believe that this will happen.

He was born there, he is happy there and he wants to stay there for the rest of his life. He says that moving away would completely alter his life.

“And the money that I would get one day, no matter how much they give me, I know that they would gain a lot and for me it would not be enough. You know, when something is not for sale – then it has no price.”

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