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• Over 80 million people and extraordinary biodiversity depend on the health of these 10 free-flowing rivers in Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America• Thousands of planned hydropower dams threaten most of the world’s remaining free-flowing rivers – and the diverse benefits they provide to people and nature
1 September 2021 – For the first time, we can now meet global climate and energy goals without damming the world’s remaining free-flowing rivers for hydropower. But a new WWF report shows that many countries are sticking to outdated plans to build high impact hydropower dams, which would threaten the diverse benefits that free-flowing rivers provide to people and exacerbate the global nature crisis – even though there are now better renewable alternatives.
Published ahead of this month’s World Hydropower Congress, 10 Rivers at Risk details the threat posed by planned hydropower dams to iconic rivers across the globe from large, biodiverse tropical rivers, like the Irrawaddy, Mekong, Tapajos, and Sepik, to the last free-flowing glacial river in the Alps, the last wild river in Europe, and rivers that are the lifeblood of the world-famous Okavango Delta and Mara wildebeest migration.
The natural flow of water, sediments, and nutrients down these rivers is critical to the food security and livelihoods of over 80 million people and the stability of some of the world’s great deltas, while also sustaining an extraordinary diversity of species both in and out of the water.
“We need to drastically expand renewable energy to tackle climate change and deliver a net-zero world by 2050 but we can’t do it at the expense of rivers, communities, and nature. Countries must seize the opportunity created by the renewable revolution and choose better ways to provide power to their people than high impact hydropower,” said Stuart Orr, WWF Freshwater Lead.
“Damming these iconic rivers – and many others across the globe – is a cost that countries no longer have to pay. They can now develop power grids that are LowCx3 – low carbon, low cost, and low conflict with communities and rivers,” added Orr.
But despite the plunging price of solar and wind generation and storage technologies, there are still thousands of high-impact hydropower dams on the drawing board – including projects that threaten the 10 rivers in the WWF report. A recent paper found that if the planned hydropower were built, it would fragment 260,000km of free-flowing rivers while generating less than 2% of the renewable energy needed by 2050 – and causing significant harm to communities and nature.
Planned hydropower dams would threaten many of the diverse and irreplaceable benefits provided to people by the free-flowing rivers in the WWF report – from productive fisheries that support local communities and indigenous people along the Sepik and Tapajos rivers to natural sediment flows that nourish rice production in the Irrawaddy basin and are key to keeping the Mekong delta above the rising seas, and pristine beauty that lures tourists to the Isel.
By fragmenting free-flowing rivers, hydropower dams have played a key role in the 84% decline in freshwater species populations since 1970. Constructing more high-impact hydropower dams would exacerbate this trend, undermining global efforts to reverse decades of decline and deliver a nature-positive world by 2030.
Poorly planned hydropower would have a devastating impact on biodiversity in all 10 Rivers at Risk, increasing the pressure on a host of threatened species from critically endangered river dolphins to endangered European fish species. Further disruption to the rivers in the upper Paraguay basin would imperil the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland, which is home to over 4000 species.
“The nature crisis is already most acute in our rivers, lakes, and freshwater wetlands. If all this high-impact hydropower were built, we would have no chance of bending the freshwater biodiversity curve,” said Orr. “The good news is that we can avoid this. We can now tackle climate change without losing more of our freshwater biodiversity. By developing the right renewables in the right places, we can create a brighter future for people, climate, rivers, and nature.”
Countries can now avoid high-impact hydropower and develop power grids that are LowCx3. Studies show there is 1.6 times as much potential for renewable generation on developed lands – such as rooftops, old mines, industrial zones, and pastures – as is needed to achieve 100% renewables by 2050. New low impact hydropower still has a role in helping the world to meet global climate and energy goals and stabilizing energy grids, but only once it has been evaluated against low carbon, low cost, low conflict renewable energy alternatives and found to be part of the best overall LowCx3 energy mix.