Unsung Heroes of Romanian Wild Water

Photo: Mitja Legat


How is river conservation like kayaking? Both require working with fluid elements that are constantly changing and potentially dangerous. Speedbumps are inevitable; bursts of success and strings of failure. Some people make a living from kayaking or nature conservation. And some just do it for the love of it.

In both kayaking and nature conservation, there are people who want the hype, the exposure and the publicity. And then there are those quiet heroes. The ones that paddle for the love, not the recognition. Or those who work countless, unpaid hours to keep concrete at bay and the whitewater flowing. This is a story about a couple of Romanian river lovers who embody the latter strategy. You’ve never heard their names, and if you don’t finish reading this article, you might never know their story.

Bâsca Mare, Romania; Photo: Mitja Legat

Romanian Rivers
Through the eyes of a foreigner, Romania is a mysterious land, often (unfairly) associated with a fictional, blood-thirsty character from a British novel. Its thick forests, plentiful rivers and medieval architecture paint a picture of a Europe of the past. But in more recent history, during the 1970s and 80s, a dictator with a thirst for hydropower ruled the country and left many rivers dammed and dead.

Calin Dejeu and Catalin Campeanu were young boys when Nicolae Ceaușescu ruled Romania as a totalitarian dictator from 1965 to 1989, responsible for both horrible human rights abuses and misuse of the environment. “In an effort to achieve energy independence, Ceaușescu encouraged a dam-building craze on the once pristine Carpathian rivers,” explains Calin, a passionate Romanian river lover, biologist and economist. “The continental climate and geography make Romania unsuitable for extensive hydropower development, however, hundreds of hydropower plants were built, many of them with multiple intake dams connected by tunnels resulting in extensive fragmentation of the Carpathian rivers.”

It’s these rivers and surrounding forests that sets Romania apart from neighboring countries. The Carpathian Mountains, the dense old-growth forests of Transylvania, and numerous rivers winding through ancient villages and fortified churches make Romania a European gem. But its dark past makes protecting the remaining rivers a real challenge. Today, Calin and Catalin are dealing with the repercussions of Ceaușescu’s greed and are part of a handful of dedicated nature conservationists who are taking to Romanian courtrooms to protect the stunning, wild rivers that remain.

One of the rivers that was spared was the Bâsca Mare River, which is now an ecologically critical river—also a whitewater kayaking and fly-fishing wonderland located in the Eastern Carpathian Mountains. “It’s one of the only rivers that crosses the Carpathian Mountains from Transylvania to Walachia and is critically important for ecological connectivity,” says Calin. The river runs southeast through Covasna and Buzău counties in central Romania and is a primary tributary to the Buzău, a commercially rafted river with a budding eco-tourism industry.

Bâsca Mare, Photo: Katja Pokorn

“When I’m near Bâsca Mare, I feel energy; I see life,” says Catalin, who has a more physical connection with the rivers of Romania as a kayaker. “It’s really difficult to find a wild river in Romania, without any intervention. The Bâsca Mare is a wild place, a natural place and it is something really special.” As a paddler and adventure sports guide, his connection to rivers through play led to his involvement in protecting the river. Together, Calin and Catalin are a team, two guys with day jobs but a love of their country and the wild places that still exist.

Luckily for the Bâsca Mare, Ceaușescu was unable to complete the hydro project and after the Romanian Revolution in 1989, the pace of hydro construction decreased abruptly. ”In time, the project became obsolete and even illegal, but the state-owned company Hidroelectrica has continued to pursue construction,” says Calin.

“In 2015 a new building permit was issued with complete disregard for the rules of the Aarhus Convention and with no consultation of the six villages to be directly affected.” The Aarhus Convention is an international agreement that gives people the right to access information about the environment and promotes public participation and access to justice in decision-making on environmental matters. In a perfect world, it’s meant to stop illegal projects like this.

The Fight for the Bâsca Mare
Calin and Catalin had already connected during the river conservation fight for the Jiu River. They joined forces when they heard about the resurrected plans for the Bâsca Mare dam and diversion. The duo spent many late nights on the phone as meeting in person wasn’t always possible. Catalin lives in the capital, Bucharest and Calin is from Cluj-Napoca, in northwestern Romania. Calin brings an arsenal of skills to the battle for Romanian rivers, drawing from his education in biology and economy. He has been intensely involved in nature conservation since 2012, initiating informal (yet successful) campaigns to save rivers like Râul Alb, Nera, Bistra and most recently the Jiu against hydropower projects.

Catalin, on the other hand, studied engineering and now owns an adventure agency guiding Romanian clients all over the world. In 2019, he opened a camp on the banks of Bâsca Mare, another strategy to keep the dam at bay. “I am a raft, canyoneering and mountaineering guide and kayaker and I am trying to develop these activities in Romania,” he says. “I make people happy and I try to protect nature.”

Green Camp on the Bâsca Mare.

The Bâsca drainage basin has an area of 300 square miles, and the river cuts through sandstone and conglomerate formations, bordered by thick forests. The Bâsca Mare, Bâsca Mică and Buzău rivers are about a three-and-a-half hour drive north from Bucharest, snaking through the forests and mountains of Transylvania. Despite the river being part of a Natura 2000 protected area, Hidroelectrica is trying to continue the construction of the hydropower plant that would send the whole river into a 20-kilometer-long pipe where the water would sit under pressure until being released to spin turbines downstream at the Nehoiașu II hydropower plant, leaving Basca Mare completely dry.

“At first, I tried to get involvement and financial support from locals, as I needed to secure money for the lawyer,” says Catalin, who thought that people profiting from the expanding tourism industry would be eager allies. The locals’ lack of interest in helping protect the river disheartened him. Instead, many were in favor of the dam because they could schedule raft trips based on hydropeaking. “Rafting companies also wanted the dams built because it gives more water for the Buzau River,” he explains. ”Some only want to make profit from a river, and some understand that rivers have an intrinsic value.”

So, Catalin took a leap to find like-minded paddlers. In 2018, he drove 13 hours (almost 1000 km) from Bucharest to Montenegro’s Tara River to attend Tara Fest, where he knew he would find paddlers passionate about rivers. He figured that advice and support would be easier to find over beers than over emails.

An appropriate place for such meetings, Tara Fest was also an idea-turned-reality by local kayaker Miljko ‘Gigo’ Bulajić who was trying to protect his home river. Gigo created the festival to promote whitewater kayaking in Montenegro and prove that the Tara is worth more as healthy and free-flowing than dammed. The three-day event has become a watering hole for passionate paddlers trying to protect rivers. Catalin met the Balkan River Defence (BRD) team there and BRD’s founder, Rok Rozman, promised him that they would come to his neck of the woods next year to do all they could to help protect his river.

Balkan Rivers Tour 4: Romania; Photo: Katja Pokorn

Balkan Rivers Tour is the annual event of BRD, a Slovenia-based river conservation NGO and its purpose is to expose amazing places and to directly help passionate locals fighting for their rivers.

In 2019, they brought Balkan Rivers Tour 4 to Romania to raise awareness about the destruction of the Bâsca Mare. By visiting, kayaking and supporting local businesses, kayakers can help keep the river wild showing decision-makers that their river is special, and people will travel to enjoy it. It’s one thing to talk about river-based tourism, and another when bright boats and foreign paddlers arrive in town.

Over the course of five days, the crew of 23 kayakers from 11 countries paddled four Romanian rivers (the Bâsca Mare, Bâsca Mică, Buzău River and Jiu River). They also explored the Bâsca Mare dam site, had a meeting with local mayors and decision-makers and met with primary school kids to pick up trash and talk kayaking.

“Seeing the destruction, we could instantly understand why Catalin and his friends have been fighting for this river for years,” wrote Rok after returning from Romania. “The dam is in the midst of a Natura 2000 protected area called Penteleu, and in 2019 (construction) was on hold due to the collapse of one of the material transport tunnels.” If completed, this illegal project will render the Basca Mare a distant memory.

BRT4 arrived at a river that locals were already defending. But through international media coverage and meetings with decision-makers, BRD added a little fuel to a fire that had been smoldering for years. Months later, BRD was able to chip in, helping with a crowdfunding effort that allowed Calin and Catalin to hire a lawyer and start the lawsuit, an effort that has morphed into long-term tool to help Romanian rivers.

The Win
Calin then had to gather information and provide enough data to support the legal argument to start the court case. “I had to acquire documents that were hard to get,” he says. This included Environmental Assessments (EA) that were obtained only at the request of the court and illustrated the many negative effects of the project. “Even the company that made the EA recognized that all the trout and grayling downstream [of the dam] would disappear,” says Calin. The dam would have disrupted 38 kilometers of river habitat, all the way downstream to the Buzău River.

Calin collected and compiled all the information for legal action. They then looked to the Romanian NGO Asociatia Declic to start the court case. Since Calin and Caltalin could not start a court case against the government as individuals, they needed an NGO to officially start the legal process, which Declic did in 2020, filing two lawsuits: one to suspend the building permit, the other one to annul the building permit.

“When we finally got to court, we lost,” explains Calin. The judge didn’t understand how different dam schemes operate and wouldn’t suspend the construction because she thought the damage was already done. “She didn’t understand what a run-of-the-river dam is, and that the impact only starts when the river is diverted,” says Calin. When they finally had some small victories—like multiple court orders to halt construction—Hidroelectrica ignored court orders and the state-owned company continued construction, revealing that powerful allies in a seemingly corrupt system can easily overpower the judicial system. However, with persistence, they were successful.

After seven years of setbacks, a court hearing on June 9, 2022, announced the cancellation of the building permit for the Bâsca Mare hydro project. Calin and Catalin were ecstatic, but realistic with their celebrations. “It doesn’t mean that this is over, they will try again,” says Calin, who has been through this process before with other rivers. “We know that court rulings regarding nature protection are not always impervious, and it is necessary to remain vigilant to ensure durable nature protections.”

The concrete of the uncompleted Bâsca Mare dam still stands, but with opened gates allowing the river to run through, feeding water into the rich riverine ecosystem and feeding whitewater into the wild rapids which are offering a sustainable eco-tourism potential. This story is just one of many fights for Romanian rivers but proves that a kayaker with the guts to dive in and take action, and a long-time river lover, doing hard work behind the scenes can work together—and be victorious—to ensure a fragment of Romanian rivers stay intact and healthy.

Calin and Catalin are unsung local heroes. Humble and hard-working they are taking on the government to save their rivers. They continue to quietly work hard, with no flashy photos or long news interviews—no national recognition. They worked backstage, spending hours behind computers, acting as invisible warriors feeding information and arguments to the court cases they weren’t even allowed to attend. All for the river. For the love of the land they come from, showing a respect and foresight that dictators of the past and decision makers of the present don’t have the wisdom to see.

“Even though I’m a biologist, it is not about biodiversity. I love water,” says Calin. “I’m fascinated by the flow. I can watch a pristine flow for hours. A river is life, because life needs water.”

Photo: Mitja Legat

Writer’s Note: UPDATE | December 2022
Under the excuse of “tackling the energy crisis,” two new draft laws and the draft emergency government ordinance are being pushed into place. This emergency ordinance would resurrect the controversial hydropower plants started decades ago, many of which have since been deemed illegal—including the Basca Mare hydro project. The ordinance would exempt the construction of hydro plants from environmental assessments and allow Hidroelectrica to approve its own feasibility analyses. Nine of these proposed dams lie within protected areas.

Calin summed up the effects of this Emergency Ordinance nicely in his Open Letter to the European Commission in early December. “It is not just about the drying up of the Jiu River for 33 kilometers, the deforestation of the Călimani National Park or the extermination of the Romanian huchen…It is about a series of ecocides with an apocalyptic cumulative impact. It includes the mutilation of two national parks, a nature park, a Ramsar site, 20 Natura 2000 sites and dozens of water bodies, in all corners of the country.”

Learn more about the threats Romanian rivers are facing and take-action to help by sending Calin’s open letter to members of the European Commission. Every letter sent helps. All info at balkanriverdefence.org