Hydropower | WWF
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Hydropower

Hydropower is destroying Europe's rivers and biodiversity. It is also one of the main reasons the EU's water protection law is breached.
Europe has the most fragmented river landscape on the planet. At least one million barriers - dams, weirs, ramps, fords and culverts - are clogging up the continent's rivers, affecting their health, the quality and availability of water, and threatening the survival of vulnerable species.

Whilst hydropower is often regarded as “green”, the dams or weirs needed to operate the plants have devastating consequences for rivers and biodiversity – these destroy both rivers and their surrounding environment, changing the river’s natural flow and trapping sediments that protect riverbanks and deltas against floods and sea level rises. They also block fish migration routes, preventing species from travelling to find food or reproduce. Indeed, a study released by the World Fish Migration Foundation in July 2020 found that freshwater migratory fish populations have collapsed by a catastrophic 93% in Europe since 1970, with dams, weirs and other barriers being amongst the key drivers, along with pollution and over-exploitation. The decline in Europe is worse than any other continent. Finally, the construction and operation of hydropower dams releases methane (from reservoirs) and CO2.

Despite the huge impact it has on nature, hydropower is continuing to develop in Europe. In 2019, WWF, together with other NGOs, commissioned the first-ever mapping of all existing and planned hydropower plants on the continent. The message from the analysis is clear: Europe’s hydropower potential has been well and truly harnessed. 

Key findings:
  • There are currently 21,387 existing hydropower plants in Europe, with 8,785 additional plants planned or under construction. Almost half of these are in the Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean, where many plants are funded or subsidised by the EU 
  • 28% of all planned hydropower is in protected areas (33% in the case of the EU), such as national parks and Natura2000 sites, which should provide safe havens for Europe’s most vulnerable biodiversity.
  • Over 90% of all the existing and planned hydropower plants in Europe are small, meaning that each plant generates at most 10 MW of electricity.

WWF advocates for there to be no more new hydropower development in Europe, and for investments to move into the refurbishment of existing plants to lessen their impact on biodiversity, or to low-cost, low carbon, low-impact alternatives, such as appropriately sited solar and wind power. WWF is also advocating to end subsidies and public financing for new hydropower development in Europe.  

Spotlight on: Austria

Austria is one of the countries most exploited by hydropower development. Watch this video to find out how one of these plants - the Murkraftwerk plant on the Mur River - came to be, despite stark warnings from scientists and Austrian citizens (and a failed environmental impact assessment!).