Does the breakdown of river barriers exacerbate Spain’s water crisis?

by Lorraine Williamson
river barriers

MADRID – Spain is experiencing one of the driest springs in history. Amid reports of the impact of water scarcity, a debate has erupted on social media over whether tearing down river barriers exacerbates the country’s water crisis. 

Twitter users have shared videos showing the destruction of dams, claiming that this is to blame for the droughts that have hit Spain in recent times. But how true is this claim? 

According to a 2022 progress report on dam removal, Spain has removed 133 barriers in the past two years. This is twice as many as Sweden, which ranks second with 69 barriers removed. By 2021, Spain had removed 108 river barriers, ranking first ahead of Sweden and France. 

Related post: Is Spain removing more dams than any other country in a drought context? 

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However, this degradation has been praised by environmentalists and organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund. Removing obstacles can help restore the natural flow of rivers, improve water quality and restore the rivers’ fish population. In addition, removing man-made barriers can help regulate floods and droughts. 

Spain has the third most river barriers in Europe 

According to the Amber Project, a database that lists all river barriers in Europe, Spain has more than 171,000 barriers in total. That is the third most in Europe after Germany and Switzerland. In comparison, Spain has removed 241 barriers in the past two years, which is only 0.14% of the country’s dams and barriers. Many of these dams were built decades ago and are either abandoned or no longer serve their original purpose. Furthermore, most of the barriers removed are low barriers rather than large dams and reservoirs. 

Rivers must return to a free-flowing state 

The degradation of river barriers is an important part of the European Union’s European Biodiversity Strategy for 2030. Within this context, the goal is to return at least 25,000 km of rivers to a free-flowing state. 

Beneficial effects of breakdown barriers 

Experts who speak out here, among others, believe that breaking down these barriers can help regulate floods and droughts. It can cause rivers to retain water for a longer period, which can be beneficial in times of drought. Allowing rivers to flow freely can also help increase groundwater recharge and maintain soil moisture levels, which are essential for plant growth and agricultural productivity. 

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