Record year for dam removals in Europe as report warns of safety risks of ageing barriers

Posted on April, 15 2024

A staggering surge in dam removals resulted in almost 500 barriers being removed from European rivers in 2023.
In line with the EU’s biodiversity targets, the momentum behind restoring rivers through dam removals continues to grow. According to a report published today by Dam Removal Europe, a remarkable 487 barriers were removed in 15 European countries in 2023 – a 50% increase on last year’s record number. These initiatives led to the reconnection of over 4300 kilometres of rivers, boosting biodiversity, restoring ecosystems and enhancing climate resilience, which is critical for communities, economies and nature.
Spain, which had been crowned the trailblazer of barrier removal for two years in a row, was dethroned by France and now occupies second place, followed by Sweden and Denmark.
“It is amazing to witness another record-breaking year for dam removals in European rivers. Almost 500 barriers were removed, highlighting the growing support for river restoration to enhance water security, reverse nature loss and adapt to the worsening impacts of climate change,” said Herman Wanningen, Director of The World Fish Migration Foundation. “From France to Finland, communities, companies and countries are investing in removing obsolete and increasingly risky barriers to improve river health for people and nature.”
But it's not all good news, as the Nature Restoration Law is currently in limbo after it failed at the final hurdle, when it was unable to secure enough votes in the Council of the European Union. The proposed law includes the critical target from the EU Biodiversity Strategy on the restoration of at least 25,000 km of rivers through dam removals by 2030.
"The handful of EU countries that are blocking the Nature Restoration Law are also jeopardising the recovery and protection of our rivers, which ultimately will adversely affect us,” said Claire Baffert, WWF Senior EU Policy Officer, Water & Climate Change Adaptation. “Across Europe, rivers are littered with often obsolete dams that worsen the health of the very freshwater ecosystems that are vital to providing clean drinking water for us, water for farming and for biodiversity. The Nature Restoration Law would set an obligation to restore free-flowing rivers: we urge EU ministers to urgently approve the law to ensure rivers can provide their natural services for us and for nature."
The report also warns about the safety risks posed by obsolete river barriers. Despite the growing momentum behind dam removals, European rivers are fragmented by more than 1.2 million barriers, including over 150,000 obsolete barriers – many of which pose significant hazards to people and wildlife. Some dams, in particular weirs (low-head dams), have been identified as potential “drowning machines”, due to the formation of inescapably strong subsurface currents. Yet there is no European wide analysis of dangerous dam incidents.
For this report, Dam Removal Europe made the first attempt to collect information about risks that dams pose to swimmers, kayakers, and other recreational river users. It found records of 82 incidents in 16 countries, which resulted in 129 fatalities. The research also revealed that the victims’ ages ranged from 2 to 59 years – with most in their mid-20s to mid-30s.
Along with this threat, more intense storms and extreme floods due to climate change are also increasing the risk of dams collapsing, particularly ageing and obsolete barriers – threatening lives, properties and economic damage. With tens of thousands of obsolete dams scattered across Europe, the potential for catastrophic failures is a growing risk for downstream communities. Indeed, at least three river barriers collapsed last year due to heavy rain in Norway, Northern Ireland, and Slovenia.
Herman Wanningen highlighted the need to remove these obsolete barriers and prevent future disasters: “Obsolete barriers do nothing but harm the river, increase nature loss and pose a growing risk since they were built to cope with very different climatic conditions. It’s time to re-think the way we manage our rivers by removing all obsolete barriers and letting as many rivers as possible flow freely. A river that does not flow freely is slowly dying.”
Looking ahead, the European dam removal movement shows no signs of slowing down, with numerous projects slated for 2024 and an increasing network of over six thousand individuals, which has played a pivotal role in raising awareness and driving action across the continent.
Several significant barrier removal projects are on the horizon for the near future. Croatia is set to proceed with the removal of eight barriers, including parts of old mills and remains of older infrastructure, in Plitvice during April and May, with the aim of restoring natural river flow and biodiversity. Romania is also gearing up for its first barrier removal scheduled for May, a move anticipated to enhance river connectivity and ecosystem health. In Spain, the Catalan Water Agency plans to commence dam removal in Colonia del Rio in June, continuing its proactive approach towards river and ecological restoration in the country.
The report was officially launched today at the Free Flow Conference, an event co-organized by the World Fish Migration Foundation and the Institute of Fisheries Management, taking place in the wonderful city of Groningen in The Netherlands.
Removing the Ritakoski Dam in Finland
© Mikko Nikkinen / Storymakers
Before and after dam removals in Europe in 2023
© Dam Removal Europe