8,700+ new hydropower plants threatening Europe’s freshwater biodiversity

Posted on November, 28 2019

The first ever Europe-wide inventory of hydropower plants shows rivers to be saturated with hydropower dams and thousands more on the cards. This is despite EU rules which should limit new hydropower plants.
28% of all planned hydropower plants are in protected areas, the vast majority in national parks and Natura 2000 sites. The study also evidences an alarming rise in small hydropower, which wreaks environmental havoc whilst producing very little energy. With more than a third of European freshwater fish species currently threatened with extinction [1] -  of which hydropower dams are a key driver -  European rivers and their biodiversity cannot cope with the pressure of more hydropower. 
Commissioned by WWF, RiverWatch, GEOTA and EuroNatur [2], the study provides damning evidence of governments’ failure to protect rivers and biodiversity, demonstrating a blatant disregard for EU water and nature protection laws.
Key findings: 
  • Europe is already saturated with 21,387 hydropower plants
  • Despite this, 8,785 additional plants which are planned or under construction [3]
  • 28% of all planned hydropower is in protected areas (33% in the EU)
  • 91% of the plants recorded by the study are small plants, which produce negligible amounts of energy (less than 10MW)
The study is released as the EU prepares its Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, and is preparing to take a leading role at the 2020 Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity [4]. 
Hydropower ≠ Green 
Hydropower dams destroy rivers and their surrounding environment, seriously contributing to the loss in freshwater biodiversity. They change a river’s natural flow, block fish migration routes - affecting fish stocks and the survival of vulnerable species - and trap sediments that protect riverbanks and deltas against floods and sea level rises. 
Strong law, weak enforcement 
Under the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD), Member States must ensure all rivers are healthy by 2027. Hydropower dams are a major obstacle to reaching this target. Seven years to go, and 60% of rivers are still not healthy. 
The impact of the WFD has been gutted by shoddy implementation, lacklustre enforcement, and the abuse of exemptions, often for the benefit of unsustainable farming and industry [5].  New hydropower plants are often built regardless of the non-deterioration principle of the law, without even asking for an exemption - even when there is evidence that the plant would further degrade river health. In Austria - one of the countries with the highest existing hydropower intensity - an additional 123 plants are planned. But a recent study [6] found that less than a third of the permits delivered for hydropower plants were in line with the WFD.
Andreas Baumüller, Head of Natural Resources at WWF’s European Policy Office, said:
“Freshwater species populations are declining at twice the rate of terrestrial or marine species - and hydropower dams are a major pressure. Europe has a strong legal tool in the EU Water Framework Directive, but enforcement by the European Commission is weak, implementation by Member States even weaker. The EU cannot claim to be a champion for biodiversity without putting this key environmental tool at the heart of its European Green Deal. It must invest in enforcement, eradicate the abuse of exemptions, and say no to more hydropower in Europe.”   
Gabriel Schwaderer, CEO of EuroNatur, said: 
“Most of the planned hydropower projects - almost 3.000 - are on the Balkans. The rivers there are still mostly intact, some even in an untouched state. They are a European treasure we cannot afford to lose. We count on the European Union to monitor closely the developments in the Balkan States, where a lot of investment goes to hydropower, but the potential for solar energy – a truly renewable energy source - is not being used.” 
Ulrich Eichelmann, CEO of RiverWatch, said:
“This assessment is alarming. We are facing nothing less than the end of free flowing rivers in Europe, if we don’t stop this dam craze. Under the label of “green energy”, the hydro lobby and political decision-makers are about to destroy Europe's last remaining rivers and streams, and with it an enormous amount of plant and animal species. We don’t need any additional new hydro dams in Europe. Subsidies on hydro has to stop and nature protection must be improved.” 
Steven Weiss, Associate Professor at the Institute of Zoology, Karl-Franzens University of Graz, said
“Based on extrapolations from my more detailed study on the Balkans, as well as the IUCN red list, we can predict that at least 20 and perhaps up to 30 freshwater fish species would go extinct if all of these plans would be carried out. Furthermore, a large percentage (> 95%) of the southern European fish fauna would be placed in an IUCN threat category. We must understand that the already high demand for water resources, especially in southern Europe will be exacerbated by such large-scale hydropower exploitation, resulting in a deadly combination for freshwater biodiversity.”
Sophie Bauer
Communications Officer (Freshwater)
WWF European Policy Office
+32 471 05 25 11
Notes to the editors: 
Key recommendations
For a full, detailed list of recommendations, please refer to p.37 in the study. 
  • New hydropower projects in the last remaining free-flowing or intact rivers in Europe have to be prevented, and the planning of additional hydropower plants should be reconsidered. 
  • Within protected areas, hydropower development cannot be an option. 
  • In countries with the highest density such as Austria, Norway or Switzerland, the focus should solely be on the refurbishment and, where possible, on renovation. 
  • Old hydropower licenses which need to be prolonged must require strong criteria on how to mitigate the environmental impacts and the public must be included in this evaluation.
In particular, we call on the European Commission to:
  • Better enforce existing EU legislation to protect rivers and their biodiversity from hydropower, particularly the EU Water Framework Directive and EU Birds and Habitats Directives. 
  • To this end, the European Commission should review the existing guidance documents that apply to hydropower development under the Common Implementation Strategy of the Water Framework Directive.  
  • End subsidies and public finance for new hydropower development in Europe
  • Develop tighter criteria for hydropower under the EU taxonomy for pollution and ecosystems impacts, to make sure no greenfield hydropower plants are developed in the EU anymore and retrofits are given priority, but only if they are more beneficial to society and environment than decommissioning and they don’t further deteriorate rivers.
[1] European Commission, 2011. European Red List of Freshwater Fishes, https://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/conservation/species/redlist/downloads/European_freshwater_fishes.pdf
[2] WWF, RiverWatch, GEOTA, EuroNatur, 2019. Hydropower pressure on European rivers: The story in numbers 
[3] These figures are a conservative estimate, as they only include plants whose precise location could be validated - for instance by high resolution satellite data - plants above 0.1 MW and officially planned plants.
[4] The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has existed since 1992 and meets every two years. In 2020, the CBD COP will be a pivotal meeting for biodiversity conservation, as a post-2020 Biodiversity Strategy will be agreed upon for the following decade. As a party to the CBD, the EU operates as one single bloc at the table, and so it is crucial that it shows strong leadership, commitments and tangible targets to protect biodiversity. Find out more here
[5] 53% of surface water bodies in the EU are covered by at least on exemption (EEA WISE)
[6] WWF Austria, ÖKOBÜRO, March 2018. Umsetzung des Verschlechterungsverbots gemäß EU-Wasserrahmenrichtlinie in Österreich im Bereich Wasserkraf. The study analyses 200 documents related to hydropower plants authorisations, including 61 permits.
Hydropower pressure on European rivers: The story in numbers
Hydropower pressure on European rivers: The story in numbers
© WWF, RiverWatch, EuroNatur, GEOTA