Legal toolkit for river protection can help save the eel

Published on May 5, 2021

Only last week, a new toolkit providing guidance to civil society organisations on how to protect rivers from hydropower developments was released. The kit was produced by the Lawyers for Rivers Initiative launched in 2018.

River ecosystems and the biodiversity that they contain are among the most endangered habitats on Earth. In the last decades, there has been a rapid expansion of new hydropower projects in Europe, particularly small hydropower. They are often promoted as a green and climate-change neutral source of energy, but the real contribution of new hydropower projects to Europe’s electricity supply is being questioned. In addition, all hydropower installations have disastrous consequences for river ecosystems. They disrupt the connectivity – the free flow – of the river and hinders the movements of the species that liver there, the transport of sediments, as well as affects the quantity and quality of ground and surface waters.

Free-flowing rivers are very rare now, especially in Europe, and many of the remaining free-flowing rivers will disappear in the next decade. With the rapid development of hydropower, legal procedures and the provision of environmental impact assessments are often sidestepped or not properly implemented. Checking whether projects are in compliance with binding environmental legislation has therefore become an important tool for preventing the construction of new hydropower plants. This is where the new toolkit comes in – it can help activists with this process.

Written by Malgorzata Smolak, Environmental and Energy Lawyer, the toolkit offers an easy, accessible overview of the most relevant international laws and EU environmental regulations, which can be used to legally challenge new hydropower plants, particularly in ecologically sensitive areas. It provides a step-by-step guide for assessing whether permits issued for the construction of new hydropower plants are legally valid and whether the procedures were applied correctly.

Organisations such as EuroNatur, GEOTA, Riverwatch, Wetlands International and WWF Adria have been working with the Lawyers for Rivers Initiative through the civil society coalition Anti Hydropower Platform. For years, they have been fighting for the protection of the last free-flowing rivers in the Mediterranean Basin, especially on the Iberian and Balkan peninsulas – for free-flowing rivers that are crucial for human life, wildlife and sustainable development. Many of these rivers provide habitat for the critically endangered European eel and other threatened migratory and freshwater fish species.