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.

(Published by National Geographic)

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 Caucasus, 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 $800 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.

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