By Margaretha Svenning, Environmental Lawyer, Älvräddarnas Waterkeeper
Dam removals, no matter how small or large, are desirable for both biodiversity and climate action.
There are approximately 11,000 dams in Sweden, with only about 2,000 of those dams producing energy and only 200 of them producing more than 10 megawatts of energy. These dams have destroyed river ecosystems and important fisheries. Historically, there were more than 80 rivers in Sweden supporting wild salmon and sea trout in the Baltic region. Today, there are fewer than 30 — dams have severely impaired the majority of them.
But Waterkeeper groups in Sweden have been successfully advocating for dam removals and the restoration of free-flowing rivers. If a considerable number of small dams in Sweden can be removed in the near future, not only will the impacts for biodiversity be great, but the implications for climate action will become more politically relevant.
Since 2010, grassroots environmental advocates have held discussions about the Åby Mill dam in Mönsterås on the southeast coast of Sweden, which destroyed habitat and blocked passage for imperiled Baltic salmon and trout. Meanwhile, the new owners had hopes of installing a turbine for small-scale hydroelectricity production. In 2015, Älvräddarnas Waterkeeper Christer Borg began discussions with the owners about a dam removal; the owners finally understood that they would not get permission to install a turbine, since small-scale hydrodams were a thing of the past.
The Swedish Environmental Code is described as governing both de-exploitation and sustainable exploitation of natural resources. Environmentally hazardous ventures, such as hydropower plants, must be established and run in environmentally appropriate locations and under legal restrictions. But if this is physically and legally impossible, the government will assume control of the environmentally hazardous venture and, if necessary, liquidate it. “Exploitation” shall be “sustainable,” and there are no legal doubts on that matter. On the other hand, the Swedish Environmental Code is the ultimate example of what is known as a “frame law,” where the concept of sustainability is a matter in which opponents try to avoid legal action to reach consensus — normally toward further development, not in the direction of “de-exploitation” (i.e., dam removal). However, in this case, Älvräddarnas Waterkeeper was able to convince the dam owners that removal was their best option. After further talks with Borg and his team, which included how the dam removal would be financed, the local municipality of Mönsterås bought the dam and started the process of removing it.
In September 2019, Älvräddarnas Waterkeeper celebrated the removal of the Åby Mill dam. This marked the beginning of a new era for the community and local biodiversity — the removal opened up five kilometers of salmon and sea trout habitat and cleared a path for widespread dam removals in Sweden.
The removal of the Åby Mill dam is an example of how government action, market-related decisions, and, of course, strong environmental advocacy from nongovernmental organizations can lead to powerful climate action. And thanks to these efforts, more dams will be removed.