Hydropower projects in Europe threatened by increasing floods and droughts due to climate change, warns new study

Posted on 11 March 2022

61% of hydropower dams worldwide will be in river basins with high to extreme risk of water scarcity, floods or both by 2050. 80% of planned dams are in areas with high or very high risk for freshwater biodiversity
Climate change will dramatically increase the frequency of floods and droughts on the rivers where hydropower projects operate around the world, increasing risks both to their safety and capacity to generate electricity, according to a new study in the Journal Water.
Using the publicly available WWF Water Risk Filter tool, the study found that 61% of current and projected hydropower dams globally will be in river basins with high to extreme risk of water scarcity, floods, or both by 2050.
“Hydropower projects have long been regarded as low-risk renewable energy investments but risks from floods and droughts are projected to increase dramatically in many river basins due to climate change – likely creating increasingly challenging operating conditions for many hydropower projects,” said Jeff Opperman, WWF Global Lead Freshwater Scientist and lead author on the study.
The study also highlights the serious threat posed by planned hydropower to freshwater biodiversity. Fragmentation of rivers by dams is one of the leading causes of the 84 percent collapse in global freshwater species populations on average since 1970 - a figure that rises to a catastrophic 93% for freshwater migratory fish in Europe. Yet the analysis found that up to 80 percent of all planned dams are in areas with high or very high risk to freshwater biodiversity, such as river basins across the Balkans.

WWF calls on European Institutions to at least strengthen sustainability criteria for electricity produced from hydropower and suspend financial support for small hydropower plants in the framework of the revision of the Renewable Energy Directive. Small hydropower plants seriously affect river connectivity and biodiversity loss, while their contribution to the energy target is very limited. The Balkans are the region most concerned by the booming of small hydropower. 

“The decline of migratory fish populations is worse in Europe than in any other continent, and barriers like hydroelectric dams are one of the leading causes of this disappearance. As the European Parliament and Member States discuss the revised EU Renewable Energy Directive, they must not forget that hydropower is harming the fish and wildlife that live in our rivers,” said Giulia Riedo, Freshwater Policy Officer at WWF European Policy Office 

The new study provides several recommendations for how hydropower planners and managers can reduce risks from climate change and environmental impacts.

For example, investing in Nature-based Solutions, such as the restoration of forests and wetlands, can help reduce flood risks. Last year, a report from Deltares showed that large-scale floodplains and river restorations are more economically attractive than traditional solutions to increase flood resilience.

For information, please contact 
Ines Abbas 
Communications Officer 
+32 488 99 27 65
Multiple interactive maps are available here.

About WWF Water Risk Filter
Launched in 2012, the WWF Water Risk Filter (https://waterriskfilter.org) was one of the first online water risk assessment tools designed for companies and investors to assess water risks in their operations, supply chains and investments, in a spatially explicit manner and at the global scale. With the latest tool upgrade in 2021, users are now able to perform forward-looking scenario analysis to evaluate how water risks may evolve over a 10- and 30-year time frame (2030 and 2050) under different climate and socio-economic scenario pathways. By better assessing current and future water risks, companies and investors can prioritize action where it matters the most to address water risks for enhancing business resilience and contributing to a sustainable future.