50,000 km of European rivers could be freed by strategic dam removals

Posted on April, 19 2021

New WWF analysis of 30,000 river obstacles in Europe shows massive potential for dam removals to bring rivers back to life
Europe's rivers are the most fragmented in the world, contributing to the loss of biodiversity and the diverse benefits that healthy, free flowing rivers provide to people. By reconnecting rivers, dam removals have been proven to bring life back to Europe's dying rivers.

WWF's new report 'The potential of barrier removal to reconnect Europe’s rivers’ analyses a sample of 30,000 barriers on large and medium-sized rivers in Europe, and assesses their reconnection potential for the whole continent, the EU27, and by country, based on the length of river which could be reconnected and the ecological quality of reconnected rivers, which could be achieved through barrier removal.

The sample studied in the report is less than 3% of Europe’s estimated 1 million barriers. Of these, 732 barriers were identified in the EU as having a high reconnection potential, which would reconnect about 11,500 km of large and medium-sized rivers. A further 6,628 were identified as having a good reconnection potential, making a total of nearly 50,000 km of rivers that have either a high or good potential to be made free-flowing again.

Dam removal is the fastest, easiest and cheapest measure to restore a river. Its efficiency has been proven on dams all over the world. The time between removal and total recovery of the river is very short. Within months the river or stream has regained its territory and soon water quality improves dramatically, riparian forests start to grow back, wildlife numbers – aquatic and terrestrial – begin to boom (particularly migratory fish) and the overall services that a river in good ecological status provides to people, start functioning once again.

WWF offices all across Europe have come together to highlght the importance - and potential impact - of dam removals on people and nature across the continent through Rivers Unlocked 2021.

On the political arena, the upcoming revision of each EU country’s River Basin Management Plans offers a unique opportunity to include measures and budget to restore rivers, floodplains and wetlands, and ensure the proper implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive, while contributing to reach the objectives of free flowing rivers stated by the 2030 Biodiversity Strategy. Recovery funds, meanwhile, can still offer a last minute chance to finance this kind of operations.

“We only studied 3% of the estimated 1 million barriers in Europe. And this sample alone represents a reconnection potential for the EU27’s rivers of nearly 50,000 kilometers! This is double the current target of 25,000 km set by the European Commission in the 2030 Biodiversity Strategy," said Andreas Baumüller , Head of Natural Resources, WWF European Policy Office.

This analysis makes clear that the European Commission in its Restoration Law should aim much higher than its current target, to maximize restoration potential for freshwater ecosystems," Baumuller added.

The European Commission will release its proposal for legally binding EU nature restoration targets by the end of 2021. The target on free-flowing river restoration through barrier removal is crucially needed to halt the decline in freshwater biodiversity and complement the requirements set by the Water Framework Directive.

“The removal of obstacles from rivers is a key tool to recover the functionality of rivers”, said Eva Hernández, WWF’s Living European Rivers Initiative Lead. “If we want to reach the Green Deal objectives, if we want a resilient landscape that allows nature and people to adapt to climate change, we need to look at our rivers and start freeing them from all the obstacles that have piled up in them over the last century”.
Dam removal in Spain
© Spanish River Authority

Related links

Distribution of barriers with removal potential in the EU27
Robledo de Chavela dam
Potential for reconnecting rivers in EU27 via dam removal
Removing dams could pave the way for the return of critically endangered sturgeon to Europe's rivers
© Shutterstock