Europe celebrated a significant victory for environmental restoration in 2023 as a record-breaking 487 river barriers were removed across the continent. This remarkable achievement, reported by Dam Removal Europe (DRE), represents a 49.8% increase from the previous year and highlights the ongoing efforts to restore natural river systems.

The removal of these barriers, including dams, weirs, culverts, and levees, has unlocked approximately 4300 kilometers of river habitat, allowing rivers to flow freely once again. Migratory fish, such as salmon, sturgeon, trout, and eels, can now access critical breeding areas, contributing to the restoration of healthy ecosystems.

Herman Wanningen, director of World Fish Migration Foundation and founder of Dam Removals Europe, emphasizes the importance of removing these structures, which disrupt the natural flow of rivers and hinder ecological functions. With over 1.2 million river barriers currently in Europe, the restoration of free-flowing rivers is crucial for preserving biodiversity and ecosystem health.

While many of these barriers were initially constructed to serve human needs, such as industry, agriculture, and hydropower, their aging infrastructure poses risks to both the environment and public safety. The removal of obsolete barriers not only benefits nature but also reduces the likelihood of flooding and enhances water purification, recreational opportunities, and tourism.

Despite the environmental benefits, the removal of river barriers is not always met with unanimous support. Concerns about flooding and the loss of popular fishing spots can create resistance, particularly from local communities and energy companies invested in hydropower. However, success stories from countries like Finland, where functioning hydropower dams have been dismantled, demonstrate the potential for positive outcomes.

Furthermore, the safety risks posed by aging dams and weirs highlight the urgency of removal efforts. Collapsing barriers not only result in economic losses and environmental damage but also pose a significant threat to human life. Wanningen stresses the importance of proactive measures to prevent uncontrolled dam failures and ensure the safety of river users.

The momentum behind the dam removal movement continues to grow, with year-on-year increases in removals. As Europe looks ahead to 2024, there is optimism for further expansion of removal efforts, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Danube region. Collaboration between stakeholders, including the hydropower community, will be essential in realizing the vision of free-flowing rivers for the benefit of both nature and society.

By Impact Lab