Critically endangered sturgeons threatened by proposed dams in Caucasus

A new hydropower project planned for the Rioni River in the country of Georgia could wipe out extremely rare sturgeons that still spawn there.

By Pearly Jacob
Published 7 Jul 2021, 11:35 BST
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A stellate sturgeon, one of five critically endangered sturgeons still found in the Rioni River of Georgia. These fish are threatened by the proposed Namakhvani Hydropower Project.
Photograph by Joel Sartore, Nat Geo Photo Ark

The canvas tents pitched on the tree-lined bank of the Rioni River in late March easily could have passed for a holiday campsite but for the fluttering flags emblazoned with “Save Rioni Valley” in Georgian script. About a dozen people busied themselves carrying out chores—chopping wood, preparing food, or attending to visitors. Under the late afternoon sun, there was little to suggest that this peaceful scene would soon lead to a watershed moment in the country’s environmental movement.

Here in the mountainous northwest region of Georgia, in the South Caucuses, these protestors—and now, many more across the country, gathering in unprecedented numbers—are fighting to stop construction of what would be the largest energy project in Georgia since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The £579 million Namakhvani Hydropower Project, approved in 2019, is slated to build two dams across the Rioni. Its backers, which include the Georgian government, say the project would boost energy security by producing up to 15 percent of the country’s electricity and would help the local economy by providing 1,600 new jobs at the power stations once construction is complete.

Conservationists, meanwhile, worry about the fate of the Rioni’s wildlife. The Rioni is one of only two rivers in the Black Sea region that are home to sturgeon, an ancient family of migratory fish that have been eliminated from most of their habitat across Eurasia and North America. The new dams, they say, could doom five of the river’s critically endangered fish—ship, beluga, stellate, Russian, and endemic colchic sturgeons—by interfering with water flow in ways that could prevent the animals from successfully reproducing.

“It may be the very last push over the edge to extinction,” says Fleur Scheele, Caucasus program manager for Fauna and Flora International (FFI), a conservation group.

In response to the project, many residents of the upper Rioni Valley have protested: The dams would flood over three square miles of land, affecting about 300 rural households. Some have also raised concerns about the safety of the dams’ planned locations, only a few dozen miles upstream from Kutaisi, Georgia’s second largest city.

Georgia’s federal government and Enka Renewables, the company behind the project, maintain the appropriate steps were followed and that issues relating to the environment will be addressed.

Natia Turnava, the minister for economy and sustainable development, who signed the agreement with Enka Renewables, did not respond to National Geographic’s request for comment. In local media, she has downplayed environmental concerns about the dams, noting that assessments had been carried out and calling the project “paramount for the country’s energy independence.”

In an email to National Geographic, Özgür Çimenoğlu, environmental manager of Enka Renewables, a subsidiary of Enka—Turkey’s largest construction company—said the company is working on a strategy to mitigate impacts to the ecosystem and will monitor sturgeon populations to assess incremental effects once the dams are operational. He added, however, that it’s the government’s responsibility to work with dam operators on an integrated approach for “consideration for the sturgeons and regulation of the river flow.”

Carl Amirgulashvili, head of the Biodiversity and Forest Policy Department at the Ministry of Environment Protection and Agriculture wrote in an email that “appropriate attention was given to the issues of sturgeon protection.”

On April 24, following months of sustained protests, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili agreed to suspend dam construction for up to a year to commission and review additional environmental and geological studies and re-examine details of the contract.

Conservationists like Scheele hope this could buy time to raise awareness about the dangers the new dams pose to sturgeons, already struggling for survival—in part a legacy of several aging Soviet-era dams on the Rioni. The protestors, she says, are “the best hope we have for the sturgeons right now.”

Their voices are gaining traction. Heidi Hautala, vice president of the European Parliament, tweeted her support for protestors on June 1: “I welcome this new kind of mobilisation of people of Georgia against a backward and destructive economic model.”

An ancient fish blocked by dams

Swimming alongside dinosaurs in Eurasia and North America, sturgeons evolved more than 250 million years ago. Some species can grow to a length of 20 feet or more over the course of a century. Demand for caviar, or sturgeon eggs, has led to the decline of several species, a problem compounded by overfishing, pollution, and dam construction. As a migratory species that swims upriver to spawn, populations of sturgeons across Europe have been devastated by dams, which block their movement. Dams’ water releases also wash away their eggs.

Scheele says it’s a miracle the Rioni’s sturgeons have survived this long. In the mid-20th century, two Soviet-era dams were built on the river without fish ladders or bypasses, hindering sturgeons’ access to their ancient migration routes from the Rioni Delta to their spawning grounds upstream.

A third dam, built in 1987 only 70 miles upstream from the Black Sea—the Vartsikhe hydropower plant—then blocked access to more than 80 percent of sturgeons’ historic spawning area, says Maka Bitsadze of the World Wildlife Fund Caucasus, which has lobbied for years to create a protected area for sturgeons in the Rioni. Within two decades, its sturgeon populations declined by more than half, researchers estimated.

The new project would consist of two water-retaining concrete dams, with one at 344 feet and the other at 165 feet tall. Though they’d be built upstream of the existing Soviet-era dams, their large size would affect the flow of the whole river—and the sturgeons that depend on it, says sturgeon expert Radu Suciu, a retired researcher formerly with the Danube Delta National Institute for Research and Development.

Sturgeons use seasonal fluctuations in water levels to time their spring migrations upstream. But the planned dams would periodically release bursts of water, a process called hydropeaking, to generate power. The extreme variations in the water level could disturb spawning conditions and confuse the animals’ sense of timing, Sicui says.

Moreover, dams occasionally discharge large volumes of water to clear accumulated sediments from the reservoirs. In one afternoon, a release could wash away an entire season of sturgeon eggs and young larvae, Bitsadze says. For most species of sturgeons, which spawn only every few years, the effect could be devastating.

The Vartsikhe dam, built in 1987 about 70 miles inland from the Black Sea, cut off more than 80 percent of sturgeon spawning grounds. Only a small stretch of the Rioni River downstream is still suitable for the fish to breed.
Photograph by Pearly Jacob
This juvenile sturgeon captured and released by Fauna and Flora International in the Rioni in April 2020 brings good news and bad news: sturgeons are still spawning in the Rioni. But this juvenile is a hybrid between a stellate sturgeon and a Russian sturgeon, a sign that populations are so small that fish searching for a mate cannot find one of their own species.
Photograph by Tamar Edisherashvili, Fauna & Flora International
The Gumati dam is one of the four Soviet dams that have impacted the Rioni River and hurt sturgeons. The proposed Namakhvani Hydropower Project would be located a few miles upstream from this dam.
Photograph by Pearly Jacob

Dams also prevent the natural flow of nutrients that nourish the crustaceans young sturgeon feed upon, Scheele says, meaning many could starve or not develop properly.

Dams similar in design to those proposed for the Namakhvani project have led to extinctions of sturgeons in rivers in Turkey, Albania, northern Italy, and elsewhere, Suciu says. A dam on Georgia’s Enguri River, built in the 1970s, polluted and diverted water, leading to the disappearance of sturgeons there.

Changes afoot

News of the approved dams comes as a blow to sturgeon conservation programs that only recently started in Georgia, Scheele says. For the last three years, Janeli Rogava, FFI’s conservation field officer, and a team of citizen inspectors have patrolled the lower channel of the Rioni, reporting illegal fishing to wildlife authorities and persuading local fishermen to join monitoring efforts by measuring, photographing, and releasing any sturgeons they catch after taking a clipping of the anal fin for genetic sampling. Catching wild sturgeons has been prohibited since the country enacted its wildlife laws in 1996, but law enforcement has been weak, says Scheele.

Although it’s become more difficult to catch increasingly rare adult sturgeons, Rogava says many fishermen are loath to release any they accidentally hook. They can fetch close to £7 per pound in local markets for their meat, double the price of farmed varieties—a potential windfall in a region where the average monthly household income is often little more than £200.   

But last year a fisherman released a nine-pound Russian sturgeon after collecting its genetic sample for scientists, and shared photographs and videos with FFI’s monitoring team.  

“No one could believe this story,” says Rogava, who does not offer any monetary incentives apart from occasional small gifts like fishing lines or hooks to fishermen who join monitoring efforts. “It shows it is possible to change mentality.”

Hydropower ambitions

Hydropower plants are nothing new in Georgia—the country has more than 90 of them—many built during the Soviet-era—which supply a little over 80 percent of its electricity, with the rest imported from Russia and Azerbaijan. But consumption is on the rise, partly because of government-subsidized crypto-mining operations, which guzzle nearly 15 percent of power generated. In addition to Namakhvani, the government has proposed plans for over a hundred new hydropower projects.

Scheele, Bitsadze, and other conservationists argue these projects are being pushed through in contravention of a 2014 signed agreement between Georgia and European Union that requires Georgia to adopt a swath of EU environmental and energy standards and regulations. These include a transparent and inclusive evaluation process for large hydropower developments like Namakhvani and recommendations that environmental impact assessments come before projects are inked.

Ecologist Tamar Edisherashvili, who partnered with Fauna and Flora International, helped find evidence that critically endangered sturgeon are still breeding in the Rioni River.

But the environmental impact assessment “is just a formality” to the government, says Irakli Macharashvili, biodiversity program manager with Green Alternative, a Tbilisi-based conservation group.

In the case of Namakhvani, the government signed a contract with Enka Renewables in April 2019 to develop the project, based on an environmental assessment done several years earlier that used a different dam design. It wasn’t until seven months later that the company submitted its new environmental impact report based on the new design. Even then, however, the government seemed to find it incomplete, issuing an environmental clearance only on the condition that Enka do further studies, including one on the potential impact to sturgeons.

Those studies are not due until one year before the dams are operational—a date yet to be determined. Enka started preparatory construction for the dams in September 2020. The details of the agreement between Enka and the government remained secret until March 2021, when local investigative outlet iFact.ge leaked the contract.

“The environmental decision should have never been passed without the results of all these studies [first],” Macharashvili says. Green Alternative is challenging the environmental clearance in federal court.

Amirgulashvili, with the environment ministry, didn’t say why environmental clearance was issued without such studies, but he stressed that Enka will do more research and that it will be required to enact “compensatory measures” for any harm to the river’s wildlife.

Enka’s Çimenoğlu says the company has followed all “environmental legislations of Georgia” and that it is committed to meeting the requirements the government laid out in the conditional environmental clearance permit. These include commissioning an independent study on what species of sturgeon are present, population estimates, which parts of the river they use, and more.

Conservationists remain unconvinced. “Our position is clear—the Rioni does not need any more dams,” Bitsaze says.

The WWF unsuccessfully lobbied the environment ministry in 2018 to protect the entire river downstream from the 1987 Vartsikhe dam as a sturgeon sanctuary, in response to the threat posed by sand and gravel mines deemed crucial to the economy by the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Economy—the same entity that issues approvals for hydropower projects. The WWF is now proposing to protect a smaller portion of the river.

Potentially working in their favour: In 2009 Georgia ratified the Bern Convention, a pan-European nature conservation treaty that obliges member states to protect wild habitats, with an emphasis on critically endangered species. A number of locations in Georgia have been proposed as protected sites under the convention, but many—such as a sanctuary for sturgeons—haven’t yet been established.

Amirgulashvili says that the government still plans to establish a protected area for sturgeons once the issue of the existing mining licenses on the riverbank is resolved. He added that a “fish pass” is planned for the Vartsikhe dam, though he didn’t provide details.

Growing protests

In early April, police forcibly dismantled the protest camp on the riverbank near the site of the proposed dams. They sealed off the roads to prevent access and briefly detained several protestors for allegedly breaking law and order. Others received fines for breaking a 9 p.m. curfew, part of the country’s coronavirus-related restrictions. This kind of police enforcement is built into Enka Renewable’s contract, which includes provisions to protect the project from protestors and financial compensation for delays they cause.  

Despite the eviction, the protests weren’t without results. Shortly thereafter, the government agreed to suspend construction of the dams. The prime minister’s office has also promised to invite a dispute resolution team from the European Energy Community, an organisation that aims to extend EU energy policies, including environmental laws and renewable energy targets, to neighbouring countries. Georgia signed up as a member of the community in 2017 as part of its bid to join the EU in 2024.

Protestors have vowed to continue until the government cancels the contract with Enka Renewables and Turnava resigns from her minister’s post. In late May, they took to Tbilisi, where some 5,000 congregated in the city’s Republic Square, in one of the country’s largest environmental protests ever.

Soon after the protests, Turnava gave a public address in a live video posted by the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development on its Facebook page in which she pledged to continue discussions with opponents of the project. “Since the people standing there are sincerely protesting and having sincere questions, and are patriots of our country, we, the government, are eager to use our local energy resources [and implement] this project well, correctly and balancing everyone's interests,” she said.

To save the sturgeon, WWF, FFI, and other conservation groups say they’re pinning their hopes in large part on the protestors, most of whom are motivated to protect their hometowns, not necessarily the sturgeon. 

One of the protest leaders is 28-year-old Varlam Goletiani, who grew up in Tvishi, a picturesque village famous for its wine. He’s fighting to save his community, which will be partially flooded by one of the dams, but he says he considers it a moral boost to know that their efforts may help endangered sturgeons.

Another protestor is 50-year-old Maka Suladze, who moved to a village called Mekvana—also set to be flooded by the dams—to start a guesthouse and a small business selling teas made from wild herbs. She refuses to sell her land and risks forceable removal by the government. 

“Beyond all the dangers of this dam … the most painful factor is they are selling [our land] without asking citizens. What we see as our future is being used by someone else for their narrow interests,” Goletiani says.

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