Black Sea Regional Transmission Project was one of the largest initiatives planned in the framework of the donors’ conference in Brussels on October 22, 2008. The project envisaged the rehabilitation and construction of a 500-kilowatt power transmission line, particularly, the rehabilitation and construction of Gardabani-Akhaltsikhe, Zestaponi-Akhaltsikhe, and Akhaltsikhe-Turkish border sections as well as the construction of a 500-kilowatt substation (with high voltage direct current). Euro 8 million was allocated by the EU Neighborhood Investment Facility as a grant to carry out preparation works. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), European Investment Bank (EIB) and German Reconstruction Bank (KfW) are planning to allocate a Euro 250 million credit for the construction. The project is being implemented by the state-owned company Georgian State Electrosystem.
The construction of the transmission line began during the Soviet times and was terminated in 1992. According to the project design proposed in 2009, the transmission line should have crossed several protected areas: Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park; Ktsia-Tabatskuri Managed Reserve and Gardabani Managed Reserve. The works on the territory of the Gardabani Managed Reserve were conducted during the Soviet times, while crossing of the rest of these territories was envisaged by the planned project. The most serious problem emerged in respect of the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park. The project offered three alternative routes of crossing the Borjomi Valley. In case of the first alternative, transmission line would have crossed the National Park in an 11.5-kilometer, dense forest areas; in case of the second alternative it would have passed in a 4.7-kilometer treeless areas; as far as the third alternative is concerned, although the transmission line would have bypassed the National Park, it would have crossed the most forested territory and other vulnerable ecosystems. Thus, the project would have had less impact on biodiversity in case of the second alternative.
The administration of the National Park and the consultants hired to study environmental impacts were also in favor of the second alternative. Despite it, the Georgian Ministry of Energy, which was interested in the project implementation, was trying to exert pressure on the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources and through gross violation of law, to use, as they claimed, the cheapest alternative in the process of project implementation, envisaging the greatest impact on the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park (first alternative).
The project was in contravention of the Georgian legislation, including the Law of Georgia on Environment Protection. According to article 5 of this law (determining main principles of environment protection), particularly according to the Priority Principle, “an action, which may cause negative impact on environment and human health, can be changed into another action of lower risk (even if more expensive). The priority shall be granted to the latter if its cost does not exceed the costs of compensation for the ecological damage caused by the less expensive action”. The Law on Protected Areas would also have been violated, as the towers and high voltage lines would have been located in the visitor’s zones and traditional use zones of a protected area; forests should have been cut on the entire perimeter of the transmission line; species would have been disturbed in the process of construction, while upon completion of the construction a danger of forest fires would have increased and the landscape would have been polluted visually. Because of visual pollution, the National Park would have become less attractive for tourism that would have had a negative influence on the National Park’s incomes. Thus, besides the violation of legislation and impact on biological diversity, the project would have had long-term negative social and economic consequences.
The Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park is the first National Park in South Caucasus, which was established with the financial support of the German Government and the KfW. This area is continuously protected under different regimes for over a century. This is the single National Park in the region included in the international network of national parks – PAN-Parks. The national park covers over 1% of the Georgian territory. Pristine and virgin ecosystems have been preserved here. A number of endemic, relict and endangered species protected by national and international law can be found in the national park. In Georgia Caucasian deer has been preserved only in three areas: Lagodekhi Protected Areas, as well as the project-affected protected areas – Gardabani Managed Reserve and Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park.
Advocacy campaign and its results
In May 2009 the Georgian Ministry of Energy published the draft report on project’s environmental and social impact assessment and in June 2009 it held public hearings on this document. Green Alternative published its comments concerning the report and submitted them to the Ministry. At the same time, in order to reduce the impact of the Black Sea Regional Transmission Project on the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, the Green Alternative launched an active lobbing campaign and involved international organizations (Pan Parks Foundation; WWF Caucasus PO; CEE Bankwatch Network) as well as local non-governmental organizations. The organizations involved in the campaign applied to the directors of the project donors: EBRD, EIB and KfW. In frames of the campaign a roundtable meeting was held in the office of Open Society – Georgia Foundation, where Green Alternative submitted an acceptable solution to the project implementation. Green Alternative justified that the route, which would cause less damage to the national park, would simultaneously be most acceptable from economic point of view in a long-term perspective, because of lower operation costs and increased safety in respect of emergency situations. The governmental officials, donors, civil society representatives and scientists participated in the meeting.
As a result of the campaign initiated by Green Alternative, the donors conducted additional field researches; alternative routes were studied additionally, from technical point of view. As a result, the representatives of the European Commission announced that if the Georgian government made a decision in favor of the environmentally-sound alternative offered by Green Alternative, the commission would have covered the difference in costs. Ministry of Energy accepted this proposal. Eventually, the European Union allocated additional Euro 3 million to Georgia as a grant, while the construction of the transmission line began via the safest route for the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, offered by Green Alternative. Later, the route was slightly corrected, though in favour of environmental protection.