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Giving Fresh lease of Life To River Ecosystems By Removing Man-made Barriers


Globally, the call for respecting the rights of rivers is gaining momentum. Some countries have gone to the extent of recognizing the legal status of rivers in the same term as recognizing the rights of humans. Rivers are now seen as living entities and the call to ‘let rivers flow free’ resounds across the globe


By Salam Rajesh

All through these years one very pervasive issue globally has been the manipulation of river systems through anthropogenic interventions leading ultimately to disruption in the natural environment and the e flow of the rivers, depletion of fish and animal species through blockage of their migratory passages and the destruction of their habitats, and causing extensive damage to human populations who directly source their food and livelihoods from the river systems.

On this very note, Dam Removal Europe — a coalition of seven environmental groups: World Wildlife Fund (WWF), The Rivers Trust, The Nature Conservancy, European Rivers Network, Rewilding Europe, Wetlands International Europe, and World Fish Migration Foundation — has since been striving to restore the free-flowing state of rivers and streams, a movement that has since been gaining momentum across Europe and globally.

The World Fish Migration Foundation and the Dam Removal Europe (DRE)’s latest report on their dam-removing campaign across Europe, titled, ‘Dam Removal Progress 2023’ (April, 2024), highlights their relative success in removing a record number of dams and other barriers from European rivers during 2023, helping to restore the disturbed waterways to their near natural status.

The report profiles as many as 500 barriers taken out of European rivers during last year alone, which is an increase of 50% from a similar achievement in 2022. France led the way in helping rivers recover with 156 removals, followed by Spain, Sweden and Denmark, while the United Kingdom removed 36 barriers, the report stated.

The DRE report specifically highlights the success story on the removal of a quarry weir in Scotland, where a steep gorge blocked heavy machinery and meant the weir had to be removed by hand, along with the removal of a series of dams on the Hiitolanjoki River in Finland, where 54-km stretch of river was opened up to salmon fish population after being blocked for more than a century.

The Hiitolanjoki project is the largest river restoration project ever done in Finland. To restore the free-flowing conditions of the river, the ambitious project took more than 25 years to accomplish. The Hiitolanjoki is a 53-km-long transborder river that runs for 8km in Southeastern Finland before entering Russia to flow into Lake Ladoga, and its catchment area is approximately 1470 km. The river is of high ecological importance as it inhabits the last remaining stock of naturally landlocked salmon fish population in Finland.

The DRE report traces back the history of how European rivers have been fragmented for centuries by more than 1.2 million instream barriers. These barriers are classified in different categories – dams, weirs, culverts, fords and ramps. The barriers caused habitat degradation and biodiversity loss, and altered the natural nutrient flow while modifying the natural sedimentation, thus amplifying the erosive power of water downstream, the report stated.

The barriers also modified the water level and impacted the recharge of the natural aquifers. Barriers that had outlived their useful lives and are obsolete were at risk of structural failure, with of course the threat of flooding human habitation downstream.

The DRE’s success story profiles that at least 487 barriers were removed in 15 European countries. France was the trailblazer of barrier removal in Europe, followed by Spain, Sweden and Denmark. 46% of the removed barriers were weirs and 36% were culverts. Dams were the next most common type of removed barriers (12%), followed by ramps, sluices and fords. 78% of the removed barriers were lower than 2m, 20% were 2 to 5m high while 2% were more than 5m high. Around 4300km of river system were reconnected through the barrier removals, the report stated.

During September and October of last year, a two-meter-high weir — a historic relic of the 1800s oil shale industry — that was situated on the Linhouse Water, a tributary of the Almond River in West Lothian, Scotland was deconstructed physically by hand. The weir, located in a steep gorge that prevented access to heavy machinery, was dismantled meticulously by hand, resounding a remarkable achievement in weir removal. It paved the way for restoring access to 8.5km stretch of pristine fish spawning habitat upstream.

The DRE initiative empowered local practitioners to restore the connectivity of thousands of river kilometers in recent years, the report says, stressing on the significance of enhancing freshwater biodiversity and enabling migratory fish to access their historical spawning sites after centuries of obstacles by man-made barriers.

The European experience reminds people back home of the long-time controversy over the Ithai Barrage – a man-made structure over the Manipur River – which has been in the eye of the storm in these past near 40 years. The Ithai Barrage is a component for the 105-megawatt Loktak hydroelectric power project in Manipur, a man-made structure that is said to have caused extensive loss to biological diversity in the Manipur River Basin, and inducing species decline and impact on the livelihoods of thousands of river and wetland-dependent local population.

Local practitioners have consistently called for the removal of Ithai Barrage to restore the near natural status of the Manipur River, the Khuga River and the Loktak Lake with the larger view on restoring the numerous wetlands in the Manipur River Basin upstream of the Ithai Barrage for biodiversity recovery, rejuvenation of migratory fish population and reshaping the physical damages occurred to the human population by this singular man-made structure.

Globally, the call for respecting the rights of rivers is gaining momentum. Some countries have gone to the extent of recognizing the legal status of rivers in the same term as recognizing the rights of humans. Rivers are now seen as living entities and the call to ‘let rivers flow free’ resounds across the globe. Rivers not only provide habitat to scores of living entities – fishes, animals, invertebrates and microorganisms – whereas, they provide the means of sustenance for human populations.

The Universal Declaration on the Rights of Rivers outlines the basic need for respecting the rights of rivers to ensure clean, healthy river ecosystems that would nourish life to many living organisms and in return, contributing largely to the world’s push for sustainability and ‘a healthy planet’ as envisioned by the United Nations in its 2030 and 2050 agendas.

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