A surge in dam removals saw the elimination of nearly 500 barriers from waterways across the continent in 2023, as revealed in a report unveiled today by Dam Removal Europe

Aligned with the EU’s biodiversity objectives, the drive to restore rivers by removing dams is gaining momentum. A noteworthy 487 barriers were dismantled across 15 European nations in 2023 – a 50% surge compared to the previous record. This resulted in the restoration of over 4300km of waterways, fostering biodiversity, revitalizing ecosystems, and fortifying climate resilience, all crucial elements for the well-being of communities, economies, and the environment, the report says.

Spain, previously leading in barrier removal in Europe for two consecutive years, was surpassed by France and now holds the second position, 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,” commented Herman Wanningen, Director of the World Fish Migration Foundation, a founding partner of Dam Removal Europe. “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.”

However, the report nots that there wass a setback as the fate of the Nature Restoration Law hangs in uncertainty. The legislation stumbled at the final hurdle, failing to secure adequate votes in the Council of Europe. This proposed law encompasses a target aimed at restoring 25,000km of river through dam removals.

The report also highlights the safety concerns associated with outdated river barriers, citing 129 fatalities over recent years. Despite the increasing momentum behind dam removal efforts, European rivers remain fragmented by over 1.2 million barriers, with more than 150,000 considered obsolete – posing significant risks to both humans and wildlife. Certain dams, particularly low-head dams known as weirs, have been singled out as potential "drowning machines" due to the formation of dangerously strong subsurface currents. Despite these risks, there is a notable absence of a comprehensive European-wide analysis of hazardous dam incidents, said the report.

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 that 82 incidents occurred in 16 countries, which resulted in 129 fatalities. Most incidents happened from 2000 on. 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, says the report. 

“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,” said  Herman Wanningen. “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.

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 is 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 Groningen in The Netherlands.

Garlogie Dam in Scotland, before removal. © SEPA

Garlogie Dam in Scotland, after removal. © SEPA