Human-made barriers have disrupted two-thirds of the world’s longest rivers

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31 May

Dams and reservoirs are the leading cause to connectivity loss in rivers globally, according to a recent study published in the scientific journal ‘Nature’.

Damming rivers: study’s alarming findings

A team of 34 international researchers from McGill University, WWF, and other institutions assessed the connectivity status of 12 million kilometers of rivers worldwide, providing the first ever global assessment of the location and extent of the planet’s remaining free-flowing rivers.
The study1 estimates that of the world’s 246 very long rivers (longer than 1,000 kilometres) only 37% remain free-flowing over their entire length.

Today there are roughly 60,000 large dams worldwide, and, worryingly, more than 3,700 hydropower dams are currently planned or under construction. In Europe alone, 25,000 hydropower plants already heavily impact and fragment a large number of river ecosystems.

The report’s findings “should serve as a big wake-up call to EU Member States: It’s time to stop delaying and take urgent action to bring our rivers back to life!”2 , said Andreas Baumüller, Head of Natural Resources at WWF’s European Policy Office. “As WWF, we urge Member States to commit to their legal obligations under EU water legislation, rather than yielding to pressures from unsustainable industry, like hydropower.”

Such warnings are not new: back in July 2018, the EEA State of Water report3 already informed about the hydromorphological pressures on European surface waters, reporting that only 40% of them have reached good ecological status as required by the Water Framework Directive (WFD).

Recently, Living Rivers Europe, a coalition of 5 NGOs, including the EAA, published a paper4 , warning that coal mining, agriculture and hydropower sectors are lobbying European governments for changes to the EU water law. Such changes - if ever put into effect – would weaken the WFD and “ give these sectors the green light to undertake even more destructive activities on rivers and lakes”.
Also, the biodiversity loss is high on all agendas thanks to a recently published landmark UN report5, which warns that one million species are at risk of extinction. EAA and EFTTA keep urging EU countries to commit to their legal obligations under the WFD to protect and restore freshwater ecosystems, including the removal or mitigation of man-made barriers, which negatively affect river connectivity, fish migration and biodiversity at large. 

Very reassuring news is coming from the German government, which confirmed at the Informal Environmental Council meeting held last week in Bucharest that it will not support changes to the EU’s water legislation6. Hopefully, other EU countries will soon follow Germany’s example. 

Read our position on Small Scale Hydropower here:

Read the report and presentations from the event “How green is hydropower?” here: 

2WWF, New study in Nature: Just one-third of the world’s longest rivers remain free-flowing, 9 May:
3European Environmental Agency (EEA), State of Water report, July 2018 :
4Living Rivers Europe, Weakening the EU water law: industry’s wish list, May 2019:
5National Geographic, One million species at risk of extinction, UN report warns, May 2019 :
6EEB, Has Germany opened the floodgates of support for EU water law?, May 2019

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