The River Vjosa in Albania - at risk from dam plans. Credit: Jon Collins/Much Better Adventures

More dams in Europe threat to future of wild fish

Dams on Europe’s rivers have blocked fish migration routes for generations – stopping them from mating. And now plans for thousands of new hydropower dams across Europe could further thwart the sex lives of fish.

Around 2700 dams are planned to be built between Slovenia and Greece.

Free flowing rivers in the Balkans are particularly under threat, such as the Vjosa in Albania, the largest and last untamed river in Europe.

In Austria alone there are plans for around 200 additional hydropower plants. And campaigners in Greece fear that plans to build four dams on the Acheloos River in Greece that have been blocked in six consecutive court rulings dating back to the 1980s could be lodged again.

Ahead of World Fish Migration Day this weekend (Saturday 21 April) campaigners are raising awareness of the impact of dams on fish by calling for old dams to be removed and for plans for new dams to be thrown out.

A new report published yesterday from researchers at the University of Graz in Austria showed that nearly one in 10 of Europe’s fish species could face extinction as a result of expanding hydropower in the western Balkans.

Sergiy Moroz, Senior Policy Officer for Water and Biodiversity at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) said:

“Fragmenting rivers with dams, barrages and other infrastructure is a key reason for the significant losses of fish and other freshwater species across Europe, as well as for the terrible state of many of our water bodies. Removing old or obsolete dams helps to restore a river’s connectivity, bringing hope for migratory fish species, such as salmon, eel and sturgeon. This is also one effective way for Member States to meet their legal commitments under the EU Water Framework Directive.”

The Water Framework Directive requires EU countries to protect, enhance, and restore rivers, wetlands, lakes and coastal waters but most are falling behind on their commitments and are not on track to achieving good status for most rivers, according to the Living Rivers Europe group – a campaign ran by the European Anglers Alliance, the European Environmental Bureau, the European Rivers Network, Wetlands International and WWF.

An estimated 4500 dams of varying sizes have so far been removed in Europe. Just last year the French government announced the largest dam removal in Europe to date, work began last week on removing the Yecla de Yeltes dam in Spain, and the demolition of a number of smaller obstacles in Finland and the Netherlands are also on the cards.

Andreas Baumüller, Head of Natural Resources at WWF’s European Policy Office, said:

“Dams have had their day in Europe – we must now focus on bringing life back to our rivers. It is crucial that EU governments now fully commit to their legal obligations under the Water Framework Directive and take dam removal seriously and ramp up ambition on their removal.”

But in March this year, a BankWatch study revealed how multilateral development banks have supported no fewer than 82 hydropower projects across southeast Europe, including in protected areas.

Since 2005, the report estimates that 727 million Euros of loans for Balkan dams and diversions have been provided by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the European Investment Bank (EIB), and the World Bank Group. This includes 37 projects in protected areas like national parks and Natura 2000 sites, or internationally recognised areas of high biodiversity value such as Important Bird Areas.

The ‘Save the Blue Heart of Europe’ campaign – led by sustainable clothing brand Patagonia and environmental NGOs – is calling on international banks to stop supporting hydropower projects in the region.

For the communities along the Vjosa in Albania, the stakes could not be higher.

And a UK-based adventure sports company ‘Much Better Adventures’ that operates trips to the region has also put together an impactful video to support the campaign to save the river that features the views of locals.

Kiare Muka (14) who grew up beside the Vjosa said:

“I have grown up in this area, and the river has always been a part of my life. Not just for me but every villager here and people that live in the communities all over the Vjosa. I believe we should not build these plants and not damage our environment but instead grow tourism. We need to come together to not let these people build these plants.”