High Mountain Hydropower: Small plants, big impacts

Posted on 09 September 2021

Hydropower threatens the Isel, the last free flowing glacial river in the European Alps
To see the last free-flowing glacial river in the European Alps, you need to head to Austria’s East Tyrol region, where the clear waters of the Isel and its tributaries run through gorges, waterfalls, wide gravel banks and floodplain forests.

Still in a near natural state, the river system is a habitat for many protected and endangered animal and plant species, its preservation all the more precious after widespread development has permanently changed most riverine ecosystems across Tyrol and throughout the Alps.

The river is also a draw for tourists, who come to enjoy the scenery, raft the rapids and bring money to the local economy,

But the River Isel is itself at risk of destruction. The hydropower lobby has been trying for years to construct a series of dams across free-flowing channels and tributaries, and the Tyrolean authorities have shown themselves unwilling – in the face of political pressure and economic interests of developers – to protect the unique riches of one of Europe’s last natural river systems.

Watch WWF's short video on the Isel here

There are more than 1,000 hydropower plants already in operation across Tyrol as a whole, with at least six plants planned, in the approval process, or under construction in the Isel system.
These plants will alter the sediment and water balance of the Isel, threatening the natural river dynamics that maintain critical ecosystem goods and services. This rare natural treasure will become just another casualty in the hunt for profit.

These are exactly the kind of high impact hydropower projects that should not be getting the green light. And it will be interesting to see if the new Hydropower Standard that has just been launched at the ongoing World Hydropower Congress will bring an end to harmful hydropower projects like these - and the ones that threaten the other iconic free flowing rivers in WWF’s recent 10 Rivers at Risk report.

What is clear is that there are murky political forces involved in the proposals. The Tyrolean government has been unaccountably reluctant to carry out proper assessments of the cumulative effects of hydropower construction on the Isel and its tributaries, and at first ducked EU calls to include the River Isel in the Natura 2000 protection scheme. When it finally caved to pressure and did so in 2015, it mysteriously left out stretches of three key tributaries, where power plants were already proposed. Clearly, there’s no ecological justification for the omission, since if you cut off key channels to the main river you might as well cut off the main river itself.
So what makes these planned power plants so vital? Good question. The most egregious example is at Haslach-Kalserbach on a tributary of the Isel, where a €30 million power plant project is in process. It’s located at a site prone to landslides, floods and avalanches, and the municipality will slump heavily into debt to finance the project. And how many local people will it supply with electricity? There are around 1,100 in the community. Do the maths and that works out at a cost of almost €30,000 per inhabitant. And, of course, there is the cost to the environment as well. It’s impossible not to be deeply cynical about the vested interests involved in giving this project the go-ahead.
Other projects are scarcely better. One completed plant at Lesachbach is located just a few hundred metres beyond the boundary of a strictly protected national park in a stretch of water that the provincial government itself has called the “last river section of its kind in East Tyrol, and particularly rare for all of Tyrol.” The affected river stretch had very good ecological status – but not any longer. And all for a negligible amount of electricity.
Still, the plans for more plants have met with predictably strong opposition from local initiatives, communities, environmental organizations, fishers, kayakers and many others. A total of 43 groups have joined with WWF and renowned scientific voices to launch a manifesto for the protection of the East Tyrolean glacial rivers, opposing all future hydropower development in the region, and calling for the formal protection of the entire wild river landscape, including the Isel and its tributaries, as a nature reserve.
It remains to be seen whether the Tyrolean government will keep on ignoring the obligations of European nature conservation laws and a broad alliance of local, national and international organizations, and allow construction of the dams to proceed. They can choose to protect their unique natural heritage for the benefit of future generations, or to protect the short-term profits of the dam-building lobby.

In the Isel’s case, it really is that simple.
WWF campaigning against hydropower plants on the free flowing Isel river
© WWF-Austria
Feature on the Isel in 10 Rivers at Risk report
Existing hydropower dam in Tyrol
© WWF Andreas Baumüller