Record-breaking year for dam removal shows growing interest in river restoration

May 16, 2022

The removal of dams has proven to be the most environmentally efficient and cost-effective way of restoring rivers, bringing wide-ranging benefits to both people and wild nature. Dam Removal Europe’s latest progress report shows an increase of 137% of barriers removed compared to the previous year, confirming the growing movement and interest in restoring rivers in Europe.



Dam removal to bring back benefits

Europe’s rivers are the most fragmented in the world, causing a loss of biodiversity and diminishing the diverse benefits that healthy, free-flowing rivers provide to people. It is therefore that restoring at least 25.000 km of rivers to a free-flowing state is flagged as one of the key elements of the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy for 2030. With over one million barriers in Europe’s waterways, the reconnection and restoration potential of dam removal is enormous.

Dam removal-based river restoration is a powerful tool for bringing freshwater ecosystems back into good health while providing major boosts for local socio-economic activities such as tourism and recreation. The time between removal and total recovery of the river is very short while the positive impact on people and nature is far-reaching.

Although the practice of Dam Removal is still in its early stages, this year’s Progress Report by Dam Removal Europe shows a positive trend in both the total number of removals and in the number of European countries that reported barrier removals.


Becoming mainstream

Spain is removing barriers at an increasing pace, demonstrating the importance of a law that enforces the decommissioning of obsolete dams

The freshly released report counts at least 239 dams removed in 17 European countries in 2021. 76% of the barriers were low-head dams and weirs, but 24% of the total were higher than 2 meters. Spain is the leading country, having removed more barriers from its rivers (108) in 2021 than all the other European countries combined in 2020 (101), including the tallest dam taken out in 2021 (13 meters high). The Iberian country keeps removing barriers at an increasing pace, demonstrating the importance of a law that enforces the decommissioning of obsolete dams.

Portugal, Montenegro, and Slovakia recorded their first-ever removal. In Finland, a functioning hydropower dam has been dismantled, as the energy production is not weighing up to the profound ecological, social and economic impact that the river restoration will bring.

While the topic of dam removal is still seen as very controversial in many countries, the increasing number of countries recording barrier removals is a hopeful step in the right direction. At least 150.000 old, obsolete, and purposeless barriers clog European rivers and its Dam Removal Europe’s goal is to establish dam removal as a common practice throughout Europe in the next few years.

“Dam removal is the most efficient tool to restore free-flowing rivers full of fish. This tool should be implemented everywhere in Europe, starting with the old and obsolete barriers that are out of use or have no economic function anymore,” says Herman Wanningen, director of the World Fish Migration Foundation.


Joining forces

Dam Removal EuropeRewilding Europe joined Dam Removal Europe  – a European-wide coalition of organisations – in 2018. Together with WWF, the World Fish Migration FoundationThe Rivers Trust, the European Rivers Network, The Nature Conservancy, and Wetlands International, we are currently working to scale up Europe’s dam removal process. Through a bottom-up process Dam Removal Europe has created a continuously growing European network and it is working towards a holistic approach to removing barriers.

The outcomes of the annual progress report will be presented at the 7th Dam Removal Europe seminar “Connected Rivers” in Lisbon (May 19-21) which happens in conjunction with the worldwide celebrations of World Fish Migration Day. It will also be the moment to reveal the winner of the Dam Removal Europe Awards, with an official ceremony to celebrate the most innovative and inspiring barrier removal of 2021.

Looking into the near future of dam removal in Europe we can say it’s exciting to keep track of the progress in 2022 and to observe initiatives like the Open Rivers Programme becoming a reality, supporting 19 new dam removals opening up 386 km of rivers.


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One of the 109 dams removed in Spain is the Matabosch dam.
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