Plans to introduce a new generation of hydroelectric dams across Europe would put ‘tremendous pressure’ on river ecosystems and should be ‘reconsidered’, a new study warns.
The study, which was commissioned by four NGOs in order to collate an inventory of hydropower across Europe, found that 8,507 new plants were planned over the coming years, adding to the existing 21,387.
Although hydropower is considered a renewable electricity source and therefore often described as ‘green’, it comes with significant environmental impacts.
Large hydropower dams are well documented to cause river fragmentation, sever modification of river flow and temperature regimes, and dramatic reductions in sediment transport.
However, the majority of the newly planned hydroelectric dams are classed as small hydropower plants and come with a unique set of environmental impacts as they can be built in more remote areas.
Ecosystems in these areas typically support unique animals and plants that are specifically adapted to survive. Changes to these ecosystems, as a result of these dams, can create less selective habitats and make the new habitat more accessible for non-native species.
The most recent Living Planet Index, published in 2018 by The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), revealed that freshwater species are the most threatened in the world, with freshwater species populations declining by 83% over the past 50 years.
The NGO study found that the Balkan region and Turkey will be most affected by future development, where several important river valleys are yet to be protected by Natura 2000 – the network of nature protection areas in the territory of the European union.
In the Natura 2000 protected areas, the study found that there is currently a total of 6,409 hydropower plants, which account for 21% of all hydropower plants in Europe.
In light of their findings and the research undertaken by the Living Planet Index, the NGO study has recommended that new hydropower projects in the last remaining free-flowing rivers in Europe should be prevented.
They also added that protected areas are not sufficiently protected and that hydropower development there cannot be an option.