Public protests against Namakhvani Hydropower Plant: key issues and unanswered questions

In recent years, the protest rally against the Namakhvani hydropower plant for saving the Rioni Valley has become the largest, most long-lasting, and most widespread movement in Georgia. It is a result of the government authorities’ persistent refusal to answer the legitimate questions the locals and the public had about the project. It confronted the locals with disproportionate and forceful methods, which destroyed trust towards them and strengthened resistance, contrary to the government’s expectations.

The main questions of the public were related to the environmental and social impacts, the justification of the need for the project, the contract with the company and the resulting obligations, the tender process, and its compatibility with the EU requirements. Thus, forceful confrontation with the locals undermined even the possibility of negotiation with the government. As a result, in April 2021, the government applied to the EU Energy Community (EnComm) Dispute Resolution and Negotiation Center [1]The EU Energy Union brings together the EU and its neighbors to create an integrated pan-European energy market. It aims to extend the rules and principles of the EU internal market to the countries … Continue reading for mediation to enable a dialogue between the government and civil society. 

At the first meeting held in June 2021, the parties reached an agreement on several issues, both in the direction of de-escalation of the conflict and the project itself in particular:

  1. The Ministries [2]Ministries of Economy and Environmental Protection should have studied on the spot the fulfillment of the conditions of the environmental and construction permits of the project and presented its report to the mediation participants.
  2. Revision of the project-related documentation by a group of international experts of high reliability and reputation, chosen by a commission composed of government representatives, the civil sector, and the EU Energy Community (EnComm).
  3. The experts of EnComm must have independently studied the commercial terms of the Namakhvani contract and its compatibility with the EnComm state aid rules.

It is noteworthy to underline that agreed points during the mediation process are valid and applied to any interested companies or the state planning to construct the Namakhvani HPP project in the future. It is subject to international revision by the already agreed scheme.

Although, before discussing the mediation process and the obtained results, it is necessary to recall the story of the project and the large-scale protest, it was ripening.

The results of the first day of mediation, Natakhtari, June 12, 2021

Namakhvani hydropower plant: project history from the Soviet Union to the present day

The Namakhvani HPP project development began in the 1970s, during the Soviet period. Its design and technical characteristics were constantly changing from the very beginning. Finally, in 1985, the project was approved to build a 161-meter-high arched dam with a capacity of 500 megawatts.

In the 90s, with the start of the Movement for the independence of Georgia and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Namakhvani project was shelved for a long time. The Namakhvani project was always facing protests in the Lechkhumi region. But unlike Khudoni HPP (702 MW), the project never went beyond the study stage. Direct construction work has not even begun on the site until recently.

On December 8, 2009, with the memorandum [3]Included Turkish Nurol Energy Production and Marketing Inc. (“Nuroli”), Korean Korea Electric Power Corporation (“Kepco”), and Korean SK Engineering and Construction Co. Ltd. signed by the government with the Turkish-Korean consortium, the Namakhvani HPP project was “revived” However, the Turkish-Korean consortium left the project soon, and the protest was not of a large scale.

It is noteworthy that during the Saakashvili period, the local population and the resistance movements outraged by the large-scale hydropower plants planned in Georgia (Khudoni, Nenskra, Namakhvani) were very well used by the Georgian Dream to mobilize electoral support, assuring them that they would not allow the development of hydropower at the expense of resettlement and eviction of the local population [4]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1cOc23IA4kU. Since coming to power, their attitude has completely changed.

In 2015, three years after the change of power, the Government of Georgia instructed the state company “Namakhvani HPP Cascade” to prepare a completely new version of the Namakhvani HPP project. In December of the same year, the company received a positive ecological expertise conclusion on an unprepared project. The technical parameters of the approved project have changed lately to construct two 99 and 59-meter-high dams with a capacity of 433 megawatts. Later, the technical parameters of the project changed once again (Capacity decreased to 424 MW). It is noteworthy that in the same period, the Ministry of Environmental Protection issued a positive ecological expertise conclusion on another unprepared project in Svaneti – Nenskra HPP, which was another controversial project.

How did “Enka” become the developer of the Namakhvani hydropower plant project: the strange tender process

On December 24, 2015, the Georgian Energy Development Fund (GEDF) announced an expression of interest to construct a 433 MW power plant project. On February 2, 2016, only the Norwegian Clean Energy Group expressed interest in the project. After that, the Fund sent tender documents to 25 other companies, although it is unknown whether these companies have expressed their interest in the project and the rationale of the Fund to contact them as well (Information on these companies is not publicly available). The GEDF asked the companies to submit the estimated electricity purchase rate, based on which the winner was supposed to be selected.

After five months, on 7th July 2016, the Norwegian company submitted the final offer for the project implementation. It was defined based on the calculation of the Turkish company Enka (In private conversations, the representative of the partnership fund said that they received three offers in total, but not confirmed by public documents). On 17th January 2017, the GEDF declared the Norwegian company the winner. However, Turkish Enka replaced the winner in the spring of 2019 (the Turkish company purchased 90% of the Norweigan company). Thus “Enka” was granted the implementation right of the project, even though the Turkish company neither participated in the tender nor made an official offer.

Russian connections of Turkish “Enka”

The engineering and construction company “Enka” was established in 1957 in Turkey. Out of 148 implemented projects, the company has never built a hydropower plant. Interestingly, the vast majority of the company’s portfolio consists of projects implemented in Russia (56 projects), three times more than projects implemented in Turkey (17 projects). Among the projects implemented in Russia is the reconstruction of the building of the Parliament (Duma) of the Russian Federation and the Government House (White House), Borisov and Tchaikovsky military residences, construction/rehabilitation of Sheremetevo International Airport, etc.

Interestingly, the government constantly pointed to the “Russian footprint” and even today actively accuses the Rioni Valley movement. Besides, it is unknown whether the government has assessed the Russian connections of the Turkish company and the threats arising from it when signing the agreement with it.

Permanent Protests 

In October 2020, permanent and continuous protests began in Rioni Valley. This protest movement was preceded by several protest movements regarding various planned HPPs in previous years, including Khudoni, Mestiachala, and Nenskra HPPs in Svaneti, Khadori 3 HPP in Pankisi, Dariali HPP, HPPs in Guria region, as well as the planned HPPs in Adjara and the cascade of Oni HPPs on the Rioni River in Oni, however, unlike these experiences, the movement for saving the Rioni Valley went beyond the borders of Lechkhumi and gradually embraced and united several protest groups scattered in different regions.

Large-scale resistance in Lechkhumi began with the fact that in 2019 residents were restricted from attending official public hearings and asking questions. Publicly the government has never answered their questions and arguments (security risks, justification of the need for the project, impact on the natural and social environment). As a result, in the spring-summer of 2020, the permanent and continuous protest rally next to the village of Zhoneti near the construction camp of the project has begun.

The authorities “answered” the protest of the locals on November 14, 2020, when the police brutally dispersed the few protest participants chained on the bridge, which caused an immediate increase in the number of participants. Over a week, on November 22, the number of people gathered at the rally increased from several tents to several hundred.

The protest took a continuous character. Rioni Valley guards decided to set up tents in the village of Namakhvani at the construction area on the land belonging to one of the activists. The government’s choice of a policy of leaving questions unanswered and trying to end peaceful protests with the police force has not only reduced the protest discharge in the valley but increased it. The resistance of Lechkhumi first covered the third largest city in Georgia, Kutaisi, and then the whole country.

In the same period, the information about the transfer of land to the company for the symbolic price by the government became known. Later, the news spread about the cabal conditions of the confidential agreement signed at Namakhvani. As a result, in February 2021, the Rioni Valley guards held several thousand protest rallies in Kutaisi. They demanded the government terminate the Namakhvani contract and for the company to leave the valley.

Later, when the Ministers of Economy and Environment arrived in Kutaisi to discuss the problematic issues but suddenly “ran away” from the meeting, it became clear that the government did not have arguments to defend the project.

It was acknowledged by Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili as well, declaring that “Under the conditions this project is now, 100 years, etc., I can tell you, that under such conditions we will not continue the project”[5]https://publika.ge/aseti-pirobebit-chven-ar-gavagrdzelebt-namakhvanhesis-proeqts-premieri/?fbclid=IwAR1HIQdZXSYxiJzyMhMs3ubKIdTIbhh1F48n-y9VE2ytOd9fwFhaA03Dw7M.

Due to the mistrust between the government and the population, it became impossible to continue the construction. In response, in April 2021, instead of de-escalation, the authorities dispersed the activists and dismantled their tents. Moreover, Police raise the iron barricades and set up a “block post” near Gumati, forbidding the protesters to move into the valley. Instead of finishing the protest, the guards of the Rioni Valley shifted the resistance to Gumati, near the iron barricades, where the number of protesters has increased significantly, joined by even those activists working on different topics.

 While the company did not stop its work during this period, the situation became unmanageable, and thousands of protesters spread to Tbilisi.

The protest in Kutaisi, against the power plant

“Enka” terminates the contract: why?

Every party participating in the protest agreed without hesitation to involve in the mediation process offered by Energy Community (EnComm). The main reason for consent was the opportunity for constructive dialogue created by the Energy Community. It enabled protesters to hear answers to legitimate questions of the population against the mistrust towards the government.

Together with the opposing parties, the representatives of the President of Georgia and the Public Defender were also involved in the mediation process from the very first day as observers.

The only party that did ignore the official invitation in the mediation process without any explanation was the Turkish company Enka, the Namakhvani HPP developer. They told EnComm that they were not planning to participate in the mediation process under any circumstances.

Conclusion of the European Energy Community

Accordingly, the mediation process took place without the participation of Enka, which already indicated that the Turkish company was not interested in either de-escalation the conflict or implementing the project by EU directives.

Instead, “Enka” continued so-called “preparatory works” and began collecting photo-video materials to describe the “facts of obstruction in construction” to prepare the ground for termination of the contract.

According to the agreement, after establishing the commission for the selection of international experts and starting the actual selection process, the Turkish company officially announced the termination of the contract. On September 22, 2021, “Enka” left the project [6]https://www.kap.org.tr/en/Bildirim/964595. Despite its withdrawal, the company has not carried out conservation works on the project, which still poses a danger to the local population due to activated landslides and floods on the road during rain.

We should not forget that the government has not officially rejected the Namakhvani HPP. On the contrary, they use every opportunity for the project revival and complete it by 2030 [7]https://www.economy.ge/uploads/files/2017/energy/2023/skopingi/3_sakartvelos_energetikisa_da_klimatis_erovnuli_integrirebuli_gegma.pdf

References

References
1 The EU Energy Union brings together the EU and its neighbors to create an integrated pan-European energy market. It aims to extend the rules and principles of the EU internal market to the countries of South Eastern Europe and the Black Sea. Georgia
2 Ministries of Economy and Environmental Protection
3 Included Turkish Nurol Energy Production and Marketing Inc. (“Nuroli”), Korean Korea Electric Power Corporation (“Kepco”), and Korean SK Engineering and Construction Co. Ltd.
4 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1cOc23IA4kU
5 https://publika.ge/aseti-pirobebit-chven-ar-gavagrdzelebt-namakhvanhesis-proeqts-premieri/?fbclid=IwAR1HIQdZXSYxiJzyMhMs3ubKIdTIbhh1F48n-y9VE2ytOd9fwFhaA03Dw7M
6 https://www.kap.org.tr/en/Bildirim/964595
7 https://www.economy.ge/uploads/files/2017/energy/2023/skopingi/3_sakartvelos_energetikisa_da_klimatis_erovnuli_integrirebuli_gegma.pdf