509 new dams are planned or are currently under construction in global protected areas where there are already 1,249 dams with almost 40 percent planned for rivers in Europe, according to a new study. Protected areas are defined to include national parks, nature reserves, as well as important indigenous sites.
“The sheer number of dams that are planned within protected areas is alarming,” Michele Thieme, lead author of the collaborative study and lead freshwater scientist at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said in a 31 July statement. “Government and industry policies must prevent the development of dams planned within these areas. The dams that already exist within protected areas should be prioritized for possible removal and the surrounding river systems should be restored".
Rivers are natural corridors that help maintain biodiversity by creating habitats for freshwater species such as river dolphins, otters, and fish. They also serve as important transportation conduits, notes "Dams and protected areas: Quantifying the spatial and temporal extent of global dam construction within protected areas".
Dams used for water supply, hydroelectricity, flood control, and irrigation affect freshwater ecosystems. Dams fragment rivers, suppress wildlife, constrain water and sediment flows, and curtail critical fish migration. The dams also affect communities that rely on thriving freshwater ecosystems for their livelihoods of fishing or floodplain farming.
There is evidence that the population of freshwater vertebrates fell by 83 percent between 1970 and 2014, with fish extinction rates exceeding all other vertebrates in the 20th Century
In Europe, the EU Biodiversity Strategy proposal includes a concrete commitment for Member States to restore at least 25,000 km of free-flowing rivers by 2030, and to establish protected areas for at least 30% of land in Europe.
“With freshwater biodiversity collapsing, we more than ever need protected areas to play their role and safeguard our European rivers,” commented Claire Baffert, Senior Water Policy Officer at WWF’s European Policy Office. “In Europe, the Birds and Habitats Directives and the Water Framework Directive constitute a strong regulatory framework to prevent river deterioration, but these laws need to be thoroughly enforced and implemented. This is currently not the case".
WWF further points out that the report’s findings are another alarm bell that the over-exploitation of rivers needs to stop. Migratory freshwater fish populations have declined by 76% on average worldwide since 1970, and have even collapsed by 93% in Europe. Habitat degradation, alteration and loss, and over-exploitation were found to be the biggest drivers of population decline.
WWF concludes that the fact that protected areas are not spared by the construction of new dams is a serious red flag.