Originally the Free Rivers Fund was an idea of the grassroots activists and masterminds behind the Balkan River Defence from the Balkans, Save our Rivers from the UK and WET – Wildwasser Erhalten Tirol (Protect Tyrol’s Whitewater). At the moment WET in Tyrol is fighting hard to protect their home river, the Ötztaler Ache. WET is not a grantee, but we, the Free Rivers Fund, are supporting them at the moment – not with money, but with time, blood, sweat and tears and with some of our social media presence as you have maybe noticed.
One hydropower plant – the first in an otherwise free flowing river – and seven diversions are planned on the Ötztaler Ache and its tributaries.
The Ötztaler Ache is the the largest glacial river in Austria and longest river without any hydro power plants in Tyrol. The Ötztaler Ache is ecologically continous and the stretches threatened by hydropower developments are classified as ‚hydromorphologically very good‘, as well as worth protecting, sensitive and unique. The Ötztaler Ache also offers countless sections of world class whitewater – one being the ‘Wellerbrücke’, the race course of the Sickline Extreme Kayaking World Championships. The impacts of the planned hydropower developments on ecology, landscape, biodiversity, recreational value and flood safety are massive.
In March 2020, while Corona virus measures kept people under curfew, construction work of the first hydropower plant was started all of the sudden. With legal proceedings unresolved the Tumpen-Habichen power plant is currently being build without all the legal permissions or answering important legal questions and several outstanding appeals of the WWF and cititzens’ initiatives still pending. Local citizens are outraged by the way construction started without public information, further negotiations or correct democratic proceedings and they feel the developers are taking advantage of the Corona curfews to keep those wanting to protest at home. But as shady as the developers are acting right now – as dubious seems the whole planning process after giving it a closer look. During their research WET uncovered that the environmental permit for the Tumpen-Habichen powerplant says in black and white what they have suspected all the way: the Ötzaler Ache is unique, sensitive and worth protecting and there is not enough public interest in this hydropower plant to issue an environmental permit to destroy this river, but it was issued anyway upon political directives. The whole proccedings around these hydropower develepmonts are not only shady but are actually violating the European Water Framework Directive and are trampling democratic proceedings in the process.
WET is currently actively campaigning against the Tumpen-Habichen hydropower plant – and all other seven diversions in the Ötz valley. They did so in joining forces with other grassroots activist groups as well as the WWF Austria, Patagonia, the kayakers, the locals and citizens’ initiatives. They have started a petition towards the Tyrolean state government that already has over 22,000 signatures, staged corona-curfew adapted protests, wrote countless blogposts and articles, working their social media channels, crawled through the bushes and operated drones to take pictures and document the contructions, made a video series, gave interviews and made it into TV, radio stations and newspapers and are currently running their second email campaign directed at local and national politicians. To make it short – they are motivated and angry and have our full support!