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

by Lorraine Williamson
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MADRID – In 2021, the Spanish government will have removed more than 108 dams and weirs. The country does this by European directives. At the same time, there is a shortage of water in the country. Citizens expressed their concerns and displeasure on ‘the socials’. 

In 2021, the Spanish government will have removed more than 108 dams and weirs. At the same time, there is a shortage of water in many areas of Spain. Citizens expressed their concerns and dissatisfaction about this on social media. 

The Spanish government has taken strong measures, driven by EU guidelines. The demolition hammer has gone into many obsolete or disused dams and weirs. Flood defences that caused damage to the surrounding ecosystem also had to suffer. Removing dams and other barriers aims to restore connectivity between rivers and is the best method of restoring original fish stocks and ecosystems. 

Related post: Drought in Spain revealed sunken villages in reservoirs 

For many Spaniards, the demolition process goes down the wrong way: the demolition of so many dams and weirs. Constructions that supply entire areas with drinking water, supply energy and limit the risk of flooding. A new report from Dam Removal Europe states that Spain is the European leader with 108 demolished obstacles. And that this happened during ‘the worst drought in 40 years’. Fact-checker Newtral collected all delivered messages via socials and put the figures in perspective. 

Determining the number of dams removed 

The report ‘Dam Removal Progress 2021’ tells us that Spain removed 108 dams and weirs in the said year. In 76% of the cases, these were relatively small structures, less than two metres high. There are 239 dams and weirs across Europe. This makes Spain top of the list. 

In 2020, all river constructions in Europe will be mapped. The research was the result of the Adaptive Management of Barriers in European Rivers (Amber) project, subsidized by the EU. The analysis shows that Spain is in the top three European countries with the most flood defences (171,203 in total). 

With so many flood defences, the total number of dams demolished is relative. Germany (224,658) is number one and Switzerland (171,693) is in second place. It is estimated that there are more than a million structures in Europe. Spain accounts for 14% of the total. 

The EU wants to restore nature 

Biological diversity is the backbone of life. To combat the decline in biodiversity, the EU has developed – with individual Member States – a long-term plan: the Biodiversity Strategy for 2030. An ambitious plan with a set of objectives for nature restoration. 

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Related post: Concerns about ongoing drought and heat in Spain 

The recovery of the rivers is an important part of this. To meet this requirement, the European Commission (EC) wants to know which river blockades are eligible for demolition. The EC’s goal is to reconnect at least 25,000 km of rivers by 2030. This restores the natural flow, improves water quality and makes the rivers ‘rich in fish’ again. 

The WWF maps the river blockades with demolition potential 

With the EU’s 2030 Biodiversity Strategy ‘in hand’, the WWF published a report in 2021 listing dams and barrages for demolition. The figures for 2019 and 2020 are also included. Criteria for eligibility for demolition are the location of the flood defence in a protected nature reserve, the total river length after removal of the construction and the current status of the diversity of species. 

The report concludes: in Spain, 5,000 dams and weirs are eligible for demolition. That is 28% of the European total. With these figures in hand, it can also be concluded that in 2021 Spain removed less than 2% of the constructions nominated for it. In perspective: The Netherlands has removed more than 10% of the dams and weirs that were eligible for this. 

Cancellation is necessary 

Newtral.es contacted César Rodríguez, General Secretary of the Rivers with Life (AEMS) association. This association stands for the preservation and restoration of rivers and pays particular attention to the sustainable management of fish stocks. They also helped during the Amber project to complete the inventory of the total number of flood defences in Spain. 

“The infrastructure of flood defences in Spain is extensive.” This will always be the case. But these structures must be well maintained. Otherwise, there is a danger of collapse, with all its consequences,” said Rodríguez. He further explains that “the fragmentation of rivers creates a barrier effect that seriously affects and even disturbs the living environment of fish. The constructions vary from large dams to small weirs. 

Dams not removed during ‘worst drought in 40 years’ 

The average water supply of the reservoirs was higher in 2021 than in 2022. At the end of August 2022, the reservoirs were 16% emptier than in the same month of 2021. But this is mainly due to the year 2022: the year of ‘the worst drought in 40 years’. year’. 

According to the Ministry of Ecological Transition, the report of the World Fish Migration Foundation – which contains the total of removed dams and weirs – covers the year 2021: when the drought was not so severe. The claim that Spain decided to remove 108 dams and weirs precisely in the year of its worst drought in 40 years is therefore patently untrue. 

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