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Restoring Europe's Rivers

Europe's waterways are littered with approximately 150,000 obsolete dams, but the good news is that there is a growing movement to remove them for the benefit of wildlife, people, agriculture and the environment.

In October, the Open Rivers Programme, a €42.5m project to provide grants to support the removal of small dams and the restoration of river flow across Europe, was launched. Last month, the European Commission released a guide for member states to identify barriers that could be removed to help achieve the goal of restoring 25,000km (15,500 miles) of rivers to free-flowing by 2030. It's all part of the drive to replenish and restore a more natural balance between man and nature, for the benefit of both.

“Dams in rivers block migration routes – the swimways – of fish,” said Herman Wanningen, founder of the World Fish Migration Foundation and Dam Removal Europe. “Some fish species, such as Atlantic salmon, eels and sturgeon, travel thousands of kilometres to complete their lifecycle. Dams also impede important sediment and nutrient transport, and drastically change the natural flow of rivers. Breeding places are lost.”

It is estimated that there are at least 1.2 million instream barriers in Europe (of which between 10 to 15 percent of the dams and weirs have no function any more and can be taken out without any problem) and that they are a factor in the massive drop in the number of migratory freshwater fish across the continent, with numbers declining by more than 90 percent between 1970 and 2016.

“Free-flowing rivers underpin a wealth of biodiversity,” Wanningen said. “They also provide food for hundreds of millions of people, as these rivers are full of life and fish. Free-flowing rivers deliver rich sediments, which are crucial to agriculture and also mitigate the impact of floods and droughts. There’s so much potential for free-flowing rivers in Europe.”


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