Catalysing dam removal initiatives in Italy

Addressing Italy's extensive river fragmentation by building a network of environmental organisations, raising awareness among local authorities and the national government, and creating conditions for the development of concrete dam removal proposals, ultimately aiming to stimulate a national strategy for restoring river connectivity in Italy.

Introduction

Damming across Italian watercourses has been extremely intense and widespread. The number of barriers to longitudinal connectivity is estimated to be more than 10k, of which over 500 are large dams. Thousands of new barriers have been built in the last 10-15 years. Similarly, lateral connectivity is hindered by tens of thousands of km of embankments and bank protections, whose location and extension are still not mapped in most regions. Thus, the great majority of Italian rivers are highly fragmented. Although some barriers play a strategic role (e.g., main reservoir hydropower schemes or key flood protection works), many barriers break the river continuum without providing any relevant socio-economic benefit.

However, despite the increasing global awareness of the benefits of restoring connectivity, removal measures remain extremely limited in Italy and concentrated in very few geographical areas. This lack of cases is linked to insufficient drivers, both bottom-up and top-down. A national strategy for restoring river connectivity is still lacking despite national legislation theoretically fostering natural retention measures as primary solutions for flood risk mitigation. The public demand for dam removal is also low due to insufficient general public awareness and lack of focus by the Italian media.

The role of sectoral organisations (such as environmental NGOs, local river committees, anglers, and white-water sports associations) could make a difference, given their widespread presence across the country (joint membership numbers over 1 million people). They are thus a key target of this project to unlock the existing potential, generate relevant local dam removal proposals and put pressure on public authorities.

At a glance

CountryItaly
Focal impact based activityOn-the-ground enabling activities in pilot catchments (at least 1 in each of the 7 Italian river basin districts), including training/test identification of longitudinal and lateral barriers and analysis of the potential for removal; work with networks of local authorities on integrating dam removal in their planning instruments.
Primary project outcomePreliminary assessment of at least seven pilot catchments in terms of connectivity and intervention priorities; a national network of NGOs coordinatin.g to advocate for the restoration of river connectivity
Project typeEnabling the dam removal movement
Project timelineAugust 2023-September 2025
Project statusLive

Project aims

The project aims to ensure favourable conditions for developing local concrete proposals and large-scale strategies for restoring river connectivity in Italy.

  1. Build a network of environmental and other relevant organisations advocating for dam removal in Italy and enable them to perform scientifically sound catchment development activities and identify potential barrier removals.
  2. Ensure that relevant local authorities know the benefits of restoring river connectivity and the opportunity within their planning and management tools, thus supporting removal proposals in their territories.
  3. Ensure that the national Government and Members of Parliament are aware of the benefits of dam removal and of the need to develop a national strategy for free-flowing rivers.

Project impact

The project is expected to create the conditions to foster more initiatives to restore free-flowing rivers, both led by local organisations and made possible by increased consideration of river connectivity within relevant planning instruments. The anticipated impact and outcomes include:

  • A wide range of NGOs and sectoral organisations has sufficient knowledge to develop barrier inventories and catchment-scale proposals for barrier removal; by the end of the project or shortly after, this allows for requests for funding for specific removals through the Open Rivers programme and other funding sources.
  • Preliminary assessment of at least seven pilot catchments in terms of connectivity and intervention priorities
  • A network representing as many as 1 M Italian citizens is coordinating to advocate for restoring river connectivity.
  • Relevant local authorities and stakeholders are aware of crucial concepts related to river connectivity and have appropriate tools to integrate dam removal into their planning instruments.
  • Members of Parliament, especially those on relevant commissions, are aware of EU strategies on free-flowing rivers and dam removal.

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