New WWF analysis shows huge potential for river restoration through barrier removal in Europe

Posted on April, 19 2021

A new report published today by WWF demonstrates the massive potential of barrier removal to restore free-flowing rivers in Europe.
The report analyses a sample of 30,000 barriers, such as dams and weirs, on large and medium-sized rivers in Europe and assesses their reconnection potential [1], providing a breakdown for Europe, the EU27, and by country.

Out of the sample studied, which totals less than 3% of Europe’s estimated 1 million barriers [3], 732 barriers were identified in the EU as having a high reconnection potential, which would allow to reconnect about 11,500 km of large and medium-sized rivers. A further 6628 were identified as having a good reconnection potential, making a total of nearly 50,000 km of rivers that have a high and good potential to be made free-flowing again, in the sample studied alone.

European rivers are the most fragmented in the world. Barriers in rivers - such as dams for hydroelectric power - are one of the main reasons for rivers failing to reach good ecological status under the EU Water Framework Directive [2], and are a key cause for the 93% decline of European freshwater migratory fish populations in the last decades [3].

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

“We only studied 3% of the estimated 1 million barriers in Europe. And this sample alone represents a reconnection potential for the EU27’s rivers of nearly 50,000 kilometers! This is already double the current target of 25,000 km set by the European Commission in the 2030 Biodiversity Strategy for the whole EU!

This analysis makes clear that the European Commission in its Restoration Law should aim much higher than its current target, to maximize restoration potential for freshwater ecosystems.”

The study also comes a few weeks after the Finnish Nature Panel identified dam removal as the most efficient restoration measure for biodiversity & economic recovery [4].

The European Commission will release its proposal for legally binding EU nature restoration targets by the end of 2021. This restoration law should include an ambitious target on free-flowing river restoration through barrier removal as this is crucially needed to halt the decline in freshwater biodiversity and complement the requirements set by the Water Framework Directive.  

Further information:
  • [1] Assessment on the reconnection potential is based on the length of river which could be reconnected and the ecological quality of reconnected rivers which could be achieved through barrier removal.
  • [2] European Environmental Agency, briefing Tracking barriers and their impacts on European river ecosystems, February 2021. Out of 34 % of surface water bodies where hydromorphological pressures are a significant pressure, 20 % failed to reach good ecological status because of the presence of barriers. 
  • [3] 
  • [4] More than one million barriers fragment Europe’s rivers, Nature, 436–441(2020) 
  • [5] Finnish Nature Panel report, page 3, (in Finnish)


Claire Baffert
Senior Policy Officer, Water
WWF European Policy Office 

Bartosz Brzezinski
Communications Officer, Biodiversity
WWF European Policy Office 
River Mura, Slovenia
© Matevž Lenarčič