Battling for Bulgarian Rivers


Venturing into a pocket of the Balkans not yet explored, the Balkan Rivers Tour team had no idea what to expect as they drove south to Bulgaria. After a quick stop at Kayak Fest Tara to see the familiar faces and rivers, the BRT4 team rallied the winding roads from Montenegro’s Tara Canyon to Bulgaria’s Kresna Gorge. The 10-hour trip gave the crew plenty of time to dream, brainstorm, scheme, plan and prepare for the week ahead.

Arriving late, bright views of the Pirin Mountains and coffee with an eclectic group of Bulgarian River defenders greeted the BRT4 team in the morning. The first presentations of the week started with the geography, history and current struggles within the Kresna Gorge and on the Struma River. Threats to the waterways of the region vary from mega highway development, cross-boundary industrial (predominately mining) pollution and the rampant construction of small hydropower dams.

Members from the fishing-club-turned-river-conservation NGO Balkanka walked the group through their online database with photos, stats, flow measurements and info on almost every small HPP in the country (check it out here!). They received Free Rivers Fund funding this year, which they used to purchase equipment to monitor water flows downstream of dams. They then notify the EU Commission for the Environment when dams are not meeting their minimum biological flow requirements. How’s that for organized, motivated and rebellious fishermen!

Together, Balkanka, Za Zemyata/Friends of the Earth Bulgaria, Nature School Vlahi and Balkani Wildlife Society form a crazy group of fishermen, conservationists, scientists and nature lovers who have created a web of river defense in Bulgaria. BRT’s goal for the week aimed to support the efforts of these groups and share their messages, both nationally and internationally. (And to experience the Struma.)

So, later that afternoon, we put kayaks in the water for a quick paddle. The Struma greatly surprised us with its teeming aquatic and birdlife, making it obvious just how much there is to fight for here.

Balkan Rivers Tour participants join for a lot of reasons. One (obviously) is to paddle but they also learn first-hand about the destructive effects of hydro, and on the other hand, about resilient and dynamic rivers of the region.

On day three, we swapped paddles for hiking boots and walked the riverside with a personal bird watching guide. Slowing down and looking around isn’t something kayakers do often, so taking in the river in slow motion opened up a world of creatures. Kingfishers, lizards, insects, and aquatic invertebrates made for a kid-like day, flipping over rocks in the river, sneaking up on birds and in the end even coming across a Balkan tortoise!

We explore rivers of the Balkans through kayaking, but local populations are often more connected to their rivers through fishing. The BRT4 Bulgaria crew tried their hand at fishing on the morning of day four and enjoyed the simplicity and challenge of fly-fishing with a tenkara rod (a reel-less, collapsible version of the conventional fly rod).

In the afternoon, the lead fish scientists from the Bulgarian Museum of Natural History treated the team to in-depth presentations. First, Tihomir Stefanov taught us about the endemic and threatened fish species of the Struma River. And then Ivan Pandakov walked us through the badass river conservation that the Bulgarian fishing-club-turned river-defenders, Balkanka, are doing.

Turns out, Balkanka went from stocking rivers to protecting them and has become the most successful group protecting Bulgarian rivers from small hydropower dams. These guys are the coolest, bravest and most effective group of fishermen out there! They regularly file official complaints to the EU Commission for the Environment and have stopped the construction of many small HPPs on Bulgarian Rivers.

What is often known as a selfish sport, has been transformed in Bulgaria into a sport where respect and action have reached a new level of strength and success. Imagine if every fishing club in the world was like Balkanka, rivers would be very well defended!

Two opposite sides of river conservation—science and direct action—collided on day five of BRT4 Bulgaria. The crew got their hands wet examining macroinvertebrates, comparing diversity of species above and below a dam on Gradevska Reka, a tributary of the Struma, with two dedicated river defenders who had both previously spoken at BRT4 Slovenia’s Students for Rivers Camp.

Small hydro and mega highway development are threatening to kill the Struma River, and so the group put their passion into action, with a ‘sign restoration’ action. Putting our paintbrushes to work, we helped the local NGO’s fighting to keep the mega highway out of the Kresna Gorge, encouraging a bypass or a tunnel.

Conservationists in Bulgaria aren’t against development and understand the need for this highway, which connects Vienna to Athens. But being smart about where and how the highway is built—i.e. keeping it out of this biodiverse and rich Struma River valley—is what they ask for.

The final day of BRT4 Bulgaria saw over 50 people take to the water in celebration of the Struma! In true BRT style, the news cameras followed and Ivan, president of Balkanka, spoke to two national TV stations about the three main threats to the river: small HPPs, industrial pollution and the highway project.

The crew gathered at the put-in with whistles and banners and paddled and played their way down the Struma River. Local kayakers, fishermen, rafting companies and even the Bulgarian National Rafting team all made their voices heard, shouting loud and proud that the Struma River is an important Bulgarian waterway that should be respected and protected! The flotilla was followed by more interviews and beer and food at Reflip Rafting base, who provided free rafts and gear for flotilla participants.

The week in Bulgaria ended with a screening of The Undamaged under a starry night sky with homemade local cognac keeping the crew warm. These slow moments and the camaraderie formed after spending a whole week in one river valley together made this new format of BRT4 so enjoyable and so effective.

And just like that, we concluded the fourth annual Balkan Rivers Tour. The Balkan River Defence team drew inspiration and ideas from each interaction and plan to carry the good energy, crazy ideas and peaceful defiance from each of the communities visited this year into next year’s tour…which promises to be big, bold, and paddling-packed.

Editor’s Note: All photos courtesy of Katja Jemec and the Balkan Rivers Defence.