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Case Study – River Sava


Croatia, a small but proud country in southeastern Europe is known for their soccer team, delicious wine and artisanal olive oil. One of their most important, but unheralded resources is  fresh water. From the significant Adriatic coastline to the waterfalls of Plitvice Lakes, water is certainly found in abundance in Croatia. Rivers are another source of water for Croatia, and they criss-cross the country serving as tributaries for other major rivers across Europe.

The River Sava, the second largest tributary to the Danube, is yet another important water resource for the country of Croatia ( It starts in Slovenia, runs through Croatia and forms the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina eventually ending in the Danube in Serbia, totaling a length of 950 km ( In addition to serving as an important ecological location, the river also has the potential to serve as a power resource and manage flood control. These needs are certainly becoming more relevant as power needs continue to grow and floods cause greater financial impact on local governments (Program Sava, 2014).

One proposed solution to meet these needs is the introduction of hydrological dams.This process has already begun upriver in Slovenia, and incidentally caused a huge disruption of sediment dispersal in the River Sava (Canjevac, 2018). The lack of sediment moving downstream has resulted in a rapidly eroding riverbed, and the potential damage of Zagreb’s currently clean aquifer. Zagreb na Savi, a private company, has taken up the mantel and proposed several small hydrological dams appears to answer many of the economic needs associated with the river, while also attempting to address some of the ecological concerns associated with building hydrological dams (Zagreb na Savi, 2018). There are a number of stakeholders involved in this proposal, as well as a complex set of investors as this project attempts to move forward. Understanding the challenges associated with the River Sava and how those challenges connect to the greater needs of Croatia is absolutely necessary for appreciating the challenges faced by the Croatian Government and its citizens.

Case Study Location

The River Sava stretches from Slovenia to Serbia (Map 1), with 510 km of river flowing through Croatia (, 2018). The proposed site of the hydrological dams is just north of the Croatian capital of Zagreb. This area is rich in biodiversity and ecological networking, it has long served as a natural floodplain for the river and generally hosts well managed flooding in the spring and autumn (Life Along the Sava, 2008).

Map 1: The Sava River watershed and the location of the case study in the vicinity of Croatian capital Zagreb (Map source: UNECE, 2017)


In 2018 we as a cohort of students from Virginia Tech traveled to Croatia to witness some of the hydrological challenges that the country faces in person. The River Sava is an important tributary to the Danube and cuts a wide path through Croatia, allowing us to more deeply explore how the River is used and managed by residents. Our meetings brought us in contact with a number of people and companies interested in the River Sava, including Professor Ivan Cenjevac at the University of Zagreb and the company Zagreb na Savi. During these conversations, and while learning about other challenges that water presents in Croatia we learned about a proposal in place to build several small hydrological dams along the River (Map 2).

Map 2: The series of multipurpose dams circled in red near the city of Zagreb along the River Sava (Map source: UNECE (1/2017))  

There are a number of factors that have led to the robust desire for several small hydrological dams along the River Sava in Croatia. The first of these factors is that the water supply for Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, has been compromised by decreasing groundwater trends (Zagreb na Savi, 2018). Years of trapped sediment behind dams up river and swift currents scouring out the river below have created a 6 meter decrease in the river bed, leading to concerns that the aquifer for the city of Zagreb may soon be compromised ( Canjevak, 2018). Another factor is the need for management of seasonal flooding (European Commission, 2013). The current wide flood plain surrounding the river functions well, but prevents any further real estate development closer to the river. Finally, opportunities for economic development like hydroelectric power along with the chance to protect the unique ecology of the river basin has led to a conglomerate of stakeholders in support of this project.




The Croatian Government is still relatively young, having only formed independently about 20 years ago. That reality combined with Croatia joining the EU just six years ago has made a focus on water management less than ideal(European Commission, 2013). The governmental ministry that is charged with attention to water resources has gone through several iterations over the course of the past few years, making it incredibly complicated to set outcomes and meet deliverables outlined by Parliament and the European Union (Croatian Ministry for Environmental Protection and Energy, 2018).

Generally all of the government entities associated with water resources in Croatia are driven by immediate need (Karlovac Fire Department, 2018). This means that local municipalities, which are extremely limited in funding sources, are most motivated by protecting locals from flooding, and encouraging tourism along the river (Zagreb na Savi, 2018). The European Union, and the funding that comes with that association, drives water responsibility because of a group agenda for sustainability by 2030 (UNEC, 2016). The Croatian Government, and Parliament in general is then driven by their commitment to the EU, and the funding sources that come from that entity to get in line with the water management plans that are outlined in the EU’s Sustainable Development Goals (UNEC, 2016).



In Croatia the government and private sector are closely related, this is most evident in water management, where private companies like Zagreb na Savi and Croatian Waters are charged by the government to cultivate plans for responsible water management (Zagreb na Savi, 2018). Through collaborative initiatives, these large private companies, in collaboration with real estate investors, are motivated to meet outcomes outlined by the Croatian Government. They are charged with developing a program to protect the River Sava from major sediment loss, while decreasing flood risk, managing water resources along the watershed, and developing responsible ways to promulgate energy in Croatia ( UNEC, 2016). In return for their support of the government’s outcomes these companies are assured of government support, opportunities for relationships with the EU, and potential funding sources in the future.

Civil Society


Water management is perhaps the area with the greatest room for growth in Croatia. We did not see during our time in Croatia much local or “grassroots” engagement in the development of the River Sava. Efforts on the part of Zagreb na Savi seem to indicate that the members of civil society most engaged with water management efforts are in academia. The Blue Heart of Europe is a largely online presence dedicated to education about the River Sava, their primary concerns are focused on environmental impact and ecological care of the management and development of the river (, 2018). Generally, we heard from our presenters that local people were largely unaware of their dependence on the Zagreb aquifer, and are historically comfortable with how the river is currently managed, i.e. wide floodplains (Zagreb na Savi, 2018).


Fig. 1  Proposed options for hydro-power dams on the River Sava (Zagreb na Savi, 2018)

Hydrological dam development on the River Sava has been in the works for many years. The original proposal called for one large dam, and work was done to draft the plans. Unfortunately, a variety of reasons including government corruption, competing priorities and complicated cross border relationships stalled plans on this project (Zagreb na Savi, 2018). After Croatia joined the EU and opportunities for funding became more abundant, the project was revived by Croatian Waters.  Croatian Waters is a government supported entity that manages all water related issues within the country of Croatia ( Croatian Waters then assigned the proposal of this project to to Zagreb na Savi, a private company. Together these two organization provide the foundation for the proposal of hydro-power projects on the River Sava. 

As needs and local ecology have evolved, so too has the proposal for the dams.  Zagreb na Savi now believes that multiple smaller hydro-power dams would more effectively support local electrical needs, maintain ecological standards along the river and actually assist with new environmental issues posed by dams built upriver in Slovenia (Zagreb na Savi, 2018). An important part of the dams is their infrastructure plans which appear to benefit local municipalities (Zagreb na Savi, 2018). In addition to  increased transportation potential providing for easier and more accessible river navigation, the dams are designed with river crossings in and effort to promote demographic connectivity. Finally, the proposed hydro-power plants are smaller in size, which requires smaller turbines and arguably cause less impact on fish within the river, as well as overall ecological damage. While there are several different strategies being utilized to organize stakeholders, Zagreb na Savi has worked to incorporate a variety of stakeholder viewpoints in their proposal (Fig 2).

Fig. 2 Stakeholder Relationships in Zagre na Savi

They utilize local stakeholders, academics, and government entities to inform them on concerns that may arise as a result of their work. These groups are also utilized to continue plans for development of the River Sava (Zagreb na Savi, 2018). We observed that feedback within these groups happens in a one on one interaction rather than all the stakeholders meeting together, rendering outside mediators irrelevant, and potentially causing less than ideal relationship building between stakeholders.

Funding for development in Croatia is generally provided by the EU, and hydro-power along the River Sava is no exception. The dams fall under a larger infrastructure scheme for Croatia encouraging responsible water usage and environmentally conscious development efforts ( The process for approval and distribution of EU funds, which includes a complex mosaic of “middle-men,” changing requirements and specifically organized proposals has forced the project to drag on much longer than hoped (Zagreb na Savi, 2018). The ongoing delays make it difficult to determine if the shared goals of the involved stakeholders has or has not been achieved. Zagreb na Zavi (2018) is clear that local funding sources are not adequate to cover the cost of 7-10 dams, and while there is local support for the development of this new infrastructure, municipalities have not yet determined a successful way to independently fund the project. 

Transparency is an ongoing issue for the government in Croatia and the timeliness of project approval funding continues to be a concern,  while trust is generally low on the part of most citizens and organizations within Croatia, Zagreb na Savi (2018) makes an effort to be transparent and generally inclusive, most notably through the use of a public relations coordinator. It is apparent that Zagreb na Savi is focused on presenting themselves as a well researched, thought out and organized company.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine the level of project awareness from those private citizens who are not directly involved as stakeholders. In fact, it appears citizens who may be directly impacted by the building of a dam or by flooding issues are generally left to educate themselves on issues that may result from the dams (Karlovac Fire Department, June 2018).

In our research on the River Sava project we found one Non-Governmental Organization (NGO)  making efforts to educate the public about the social and environmental concerns of the proposed dams using varied media resources. Save the Blue Heart of Europe ( holds an opposing view to Zagreb na Savi on the environmental impact of dams on the River Sava. Their platform argues that change in the hydrological regime from hydropower development will directly threaten and negatively impact biodiversity, culture and historical economy along the river.

It is with the complexities of the river systems, as well as the opportunities for tourism and recreation potential, and the varied needs of stakeholders that Croatian Waters and Zagreb na Savi must forge ahead with what they believe is a project that will be an overall benefit to the country.  The project outcomes focus on improved ecosystem health and connectivity and provide opportunities for ongoing assessment and adjustment as the dam projects move forward.


The River Sava has several key components that must be factored into making a successful system. One of the most obvious is seasonal flood control and ensuring a proficient water supply. Current flood mitigation measures within the Sava River Basin are comprised of approximately 1600 km of protective dikes and 200 km of protective structures as well as multipurpose reservoirs for excess water storage (ISRBC, 2009). The proposed series of dams along the Sava River near Zagreb are being designed to improve flood mitigation with the central focus on controlling seasonal flooding which has become less predictable and may either increase or decrease in severity as a result of climate change. According to the World Bank Group (2015), climate change will impact the system either positively or negatively depending on management of climate change effects. Diversion of excess water from major metropolitan areas is also one of the main focuses in the plan design. The water table would be preserved and protected with the dam development by raising the table back to traditional levels. Exploring these proposed opportunities makes hydro-power dams very enticing, especially for local municipalities.

Fig 3.Diagram of the Sava River system dimensions in the vicinity of Zagreb Croatia

To counter the apparent benefits of hydro-power, NGOs like Save the Blue Heart of Europe argue that dams cause catastrophic damage to the overall eco-system in a river. Navigation for fish species and other aquatic life is necessary for migration. Zagreb na Savi (2018) has included this concern in their proposal and believes they have developed an infrastructure that will allow for safe passage and uninterrupted animal behaviors. 

Finally, the River Sava system is ripe with economic opportunities. Commercial and non-commercial vessels being able to travel up and down the river provides a unique financial chance to grow cities along the river (Zagreb na Savi, 2018).  Water resources for hydroelectric power and as a coolant for nuclear power generation present an exciting use of a harnessed river. For Croatia, independence in energy resources, while being compliant with EU standards for environmental management is an extraordinary and worth goal.

Fig. 4: The proposed hydropower dam n the River Sava (Source: Zagreb na Savi (2018))

The logistics for a project of this magnitude require multi-agency collaboration and in-depth communication with the public over concerns and aspirations. Most analytical and financial resources in this situation come from the EU, and decisions are generally dependent on the presence of funding. Unfortunately, for many reasons, the project has not been deemed critical (like the flooding issues in Karlovac, for example), so the proposals continue to remain in a state of design only. Our sources indicated that communication can be tedious and multi-layered due to the sheer number of different stakeholders involved, which include the EU, Croatian Waters, and the Croatian Parliament.

If hydro-power dam funding is approved, a number of significant but slow to develop changes have the potential to occur along the river. Urban and rural regeneration will mostly likely occur because of improved water management practices, and well designed infrastructure. Additionally, having the ability to utilize the Sava will result in increasing real estate values along the river (Zagreb na Savi, 2018). Finally, the river could see significantly change due to climate change.  Variables like river runoff and higher energy demand could result in positive or negative changes to the system (World Bank Group, 2015).

The more immediate impacts of EU funding being approved and received, would be improved infrastructure for local municipalities, an improvement in flood management, and greater independence in power supply (Zagren na Savi, 2018).  New roads, and bridges will allow for increased connectivity between towns making travel even easier. Flooding has historically been a fast variable that dramatically affects the system and floods are no longer exclusive seasonal events, but have become more unpredictable. Contributing to this is more dramatic temperature changes than have been experience historically, which can result in sudden snowmelt leading to increased flood risk (Begović et al. 2011). Finally, Croatia has agreed to end their dependence on a shared nuclear power plant based in Slovenia in the near future, making their need for energy independence much  more urgent (Canjevac, 2018).


As of 2018 the hydro-power dams are still in proposal stage, so current outcomes are not measurable. Croatian Waters is the primary monitor of the outcomes for the proposal.

  • Flood Protection: Stakeholders at many levels are eager to implement improved flood protection measures. Reducing flooding events benefits both rural and urban areas including the city of Zagreb.
  • Energy Independence: Exploring opportunities outside of nuclear power that are EU approved is essential to the continued growth of Croatia’s Government. Renewable energy capacity is expected to increase by 50%, allowing transition from non-renewable energy (Zagreb na Savi, 2018).
  • Economic Benefits: It is expected that Croatia will see an increase in river traffic, as well as rural and urban re-generation of river frontage properties when the dams are built.  Commercial cargo traffic is expected to increase, resulting to possible construction of multiple shipping ports along the river (Zagreb na Savi, 2018). There is also an expected benefit to tourism and more formalized recreational opportunities.
  • Improved Local Infrastructure: New roads and bridges for local municipality will improve connections between cities and reduce overall transportation costs (Canjevac, 2018).
  • Ecological Benefits:  The project has multiple expected ecological benefits which include protection and restoration of aquifers and groundwater, water quality improvement, reforestation and rehabilitation of wetlands, establishment of protected habitats, reduced flood hazards and recreating new monitoring schemes of environmental conditions (Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol, 2014).


Perhaps that greatest uncertainty is the EU approval and distribution of the  necessary 1.2 million Euros for the hydro-power dam project. If the project does not receive the funding, it will not be able to move forward at all, funding by local or national government is not an option (Zagreb na Savi, 2018). As flooding has become less predictable, there are possible risks to the projects during the construction phase. The other uncertainty is how climate change will affect the system. It is clear that there will be an effect, but it depends largely on severity of climatic changes and effectiveness of planning for mitigation measures (World Bank Group, 2015).


The detailed planning and research completed by Zagreb na Savi, makes the proposal seem to be fairly low risk. There are few disputes between stakeholders on implementation and there is little resistance to the proposal on any level of Croatian society.  The approach that Zagreb na Savi has adopted provides a foundation of potential success for the project, pending on EU approval and distribution of funds.

Government and business sectors seem motivated to move forward and complete the project, though the urgency of the business sector is not matched by governmental organizations due to competing interests and commitments. It seems clear after conversations with a variety of contacts involved with the River Sava that the length of time and difficulty receiving EU approval and funding is perhaps the most frustrating obstacle for stakeholders, especially local municipalities and business (Zagreb na Savi, 2018).

The overall net benefits of the project seem to vastly outweigh the negative impacts. Organizations such as Save the Blue Heart of Europe certainly have valid arguments against the development of the project. However, this is a system which continues to face severe threats from flooding, energy dependence, increasing power demands as well as decreasing groundwater trends and the proposed project appears to successfully address all of these serious concerns, greatly benefiting the citizens of Zagreb and Croatia.


We would like to thank all of our local partners in Croatia for their time and effort in providing us the valuable information relating to the water issues within the country. Thank you Zagreb na Savi, Dr. Ivan Canjevac, the Karlovac Fire Department and The Ministry for Environmental Protection and Energy for your generous hospitality and knowledge presented during our visit.  Finally, we would like to thank our professor Dr. Anamaria Bukvic for her ongoing guidance, support and knowledge, which truly made this experience one of a kind!


Begović, V., & Schrunk, V. (2011). Endangered Cultural Heritage along the Major Rivers and Adjacent Wetlands in Croatia (pp. 40-41, Rep.). Zagreb, Croatia: Institute of Archaeology.

Biodiversity in the River Sava Basin. Retrieved July 27, 2018 from

European Commission, (June 12, 2016), European Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiations, Retrieved from:

Flooding in Karlovac. (2018, July 3). Lecture presented at Virginia Tech IFE in Croatia, Karlovac.

Naslovnica | Hrvatske vode. (2018). Retrieved July 27, 2018, from (2017). Retrieved July 27, 2018, from

Sava River Basin Analysis Report (Rep.). (2009, September). Retrieved August 09, 2018, from International Sava River Basin Commission website:

Save the Blue Heart of Europe. (n.d.). Retrieved July 27, 2018, from

United Nations Economic Commission For Europe (UNECE). (January, 2017). Reconciling resources uses in transboundary basins: assessment of the water-food-energy-ecosystem nexus in the Sava River Basin. Retrieved August 1, 2018, from

Water and Climate Adaptation Plan for the Sava River Basin (pp. 1-2, Rep.). (2015). Washington D.C.: The World Bank. doi:

Zagreb na Savi. (2018, July 4). Lecture presented at Virginia Tech IFE in Croatia, Zagreb.



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