Over 500 new dams planned for development in protected areas

Aerial shot of the Amazon with a winding river, Loreto region, Peru.

Just over 500 dams are planned for development or are already under construction within protected areas, according to a new study by WWF and partners. The study also finds that over 1,200 large dams already exist within protected areas.

These findings raise red flags for the ability of protected areas to effectively offer protection to the rivers that run through them. Dams change how a river flows and often cause blockages and disrupt migration patterns. Species that move to find food, reproduce, or seek new habitat as the seasons change—such as salmon and river dolphins—can no longer do so. This threatens important freshwater ecosystems and people and wildlife who depend on them for survival.

Mura River


What would the impact of dams in protected areas be? Croatia and Slovenia case study:

Several dams have been planned along the Mura and Drava Rivers - eight on the Mura in Slovenia and at least three on the Drava in Croatia - within protected areas (called Natura 2000 sites in Europe) to provide electricity and flood protection to the surrounding areas. However, a study on the anticipated impacts of the dams revealed severe negative implications to nature and people. These new structures would change the natural flow of the river, erode the riverbed, prevent fish from migrating upstream and eliminate much of the natural habitats of other species. Local communities would also be impacted as activities such as fishing, swimming, and boating would be restricted.

“Protected areas are a fundamental strategy for protecting biodiversity and services to people, but their design and management to protect freshwater ecosystems must be improved,” said Michele Thieme, lead author of the study and lead freshwater scientist at WWF. “Rivers are the lifeblood of ecosystems. Any policy that aims to conserve nature must prioritize the free flow of rivers.

A 2019 study found that over two-thirds of long rivers are impeded by dams and infrastructure. Loss of healthy, connected rivers is one of the major drivers of the 83% decline of freshwater species populations and according to a recent report, dams are one of the main factors contributing to the 76% decline in freshwater migratory fish populations since 1970. 

To help countries and communities better protect their freshwater resources, WWF and partners have detailed how the world can meet climate targets and keep rivers Connected and Flowing. By shifting a portion of projected future hydropower development toward increased investment in wind and solar generation, and carefully siting new hydropower projects to mitigate negative impacts to critical ecosystems, we can better protect our rivers and the species and communities that depend on them.