25 November 2019 | Reading 10 mins.

Harnessing Europe’s rivers for power — is it worth it?

Martina Mlinaric
Senior Water Policy Officer, WWF European Policy Office
Sophie Bauer
Communications Officer (Freshwater), WWF European Policy Office

Martina Mlinaric, Senior Water Policy Officer, WWF European Policy Office

Sophie Bauer, Communications Officer (Freshwater), WWF European Policy Office

Humans have been using the forces of moving water for millennia, first with mills along flowing rivers for grinding grains, and now, since over a century, in the form of hydropower to produce electricity. Hailed as a clean renewable energy source, hydropower dams were built all across Europe to harness the natural power of rivers. Hydropower may be considered renewable but its ‘green’ credentials are far more questionable. Constructing and operating hydropower plants, whether big or small, always has consequences: the rivers, natural wildlife, and human communities that live alongside them who pay the price.

Rivers are not pipes or a series of manmade structures we can modify at the drop of a hat, but delicate, perfectly-tuned ecosystems. Just as blood vessels pump oxygen and other nutrients through our bodies, free-flowing rivers provide critical services to people, nature and economies – from supplying water for drinking, agriculture and many industries, to filtering out pollutants. They also house a rich array of fish and other freshwater species, many of which we depend on for food.

Hydropower may be considered renewable but its ‘green’ credentials are far more questionable.

Myths about Hydropower’s Green Credentials

The construction and operation of hydropower has only negative implications for rivers – fragmenting channels and altering the river’s natural flow, destroying habitats, blocking fish migration routes (thus preventing them from spawning and reproducing), and threatening already vulnerable species. In April 2018, the University of Graz released a report which revealed that planned hydropower plants in the Balkans could result in a shocking 1 in 10 fish species being pushed to the brink of extinction (source: Save the Blue Heart of Europe).

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