Let it flow: How Finland and partners are freeing their rivers from dams for valuable migratory fish

02 Október 2019 15:53
A landmark deal has paved the way for the largest dam removal in Finland so far. Three hydro dams will be removed on the Hiitolanjoki river thanks to WWF and public funding, restoring a series of big rapids and allowing salmon to return to ancient spawning grounds for the first time in 200 years! This notable win has since created huge public and media interest and momentum-building for more dam removals across the country.

“It’s been nothing short of a paradigm shift,” says Sampsa Vilhunen, WWF-Finland’s Head of Programme for Marine and Freshwater, describing what it took to get to this point where the value of free flowing rivers and health of freshwater fish stocks are now fully recognized and acted upon by politicians.

“For our most recent work, it took one full year of advocacy to have dam removals finally signed off in Finland's national plan this year,” Sampsa shares.

But the work that led to this pivotal moment certainly took much longer.

It started way back in 2015 during the parliamentary elections. Political parties were openly planning to infringe key 1987 legislationwhich covers the protection of the last free-flowing rivers and wild rapidsby investing in hydropower to phase out coal plants and switch to cleaner energy.

“While the intention was essentially good and in keeping with the climate Paris Agreement, unfortunately, it would have been at the expense of our freshwater habitats, which at the time, was not of interest to our politicians,” Sampsa admits.

This served as the impetus for the public to stand up for rivers. Just prior to the elections, WWF and partner NGOs conducted a social media campaign which pitted hydropower versus free-flowing rivers. This provided much-needed amplification for the citizens’ voices.


Local poster produced by WWF-Finland, which pitted hydropower versus free-flowing rivers. It juxtaposes hard cold concrete with fresh and free nature, asking people what would they rather have?


The campaign included citizen polls and meetings with politicians to stress the harm that hydropower can bring do important freshwater habitats. The campaign received a tremendous response from the public on social media, which pressured politicians to not only drop the idea of harnessing the rest of the country's free-flowing rivers for hydropower, but also to include language on restoring rivers and bringing back migratory fish stocks in the government’s four-year plan!

“Rivers became a big national topic! From destroying to restoring, politicians saw the value of nature, or perhaps they were forced to do so. What happened behind the closed doors of governmental negotiations still remains to be studied one day by social scientists and historians,” Sampsa says.

This was a great example of a bottom-up approach, showing how a critical mass of people can make their voices heard, defend national legislation, and even create a paradigm shift on how rivers are regarded in policy.


One of the dams in the Hiitolanjoki river that will be removed in the coming years.

Aerial view of one of the dams at River Kirkkojoki where WWF applied a by-pass solution instead of removal. This opened a migration path for important habitats since late 1800s.


A gush of support

Today, Finland is working to mitigate climate change, but hydropower is no longer a major part of the equation. And to seal the deal even further, this year, for the first time ever, Finland explicitly included the removal of dams in its national plans and provided much needed funding to restore the country’s riversa big win for migratory freshwater species such as salmon, a boost for regional development, and a triumph for nature and people.

In the next four years, dam removal work will be granted 18M Euros from public funds, part of the promised extra 100M per year for nature conservation in Finland.

Thanks to the public, local, and major donor funding, WWF-Finland and partners are now working to remove three dams from the Hiltolanjoki river, which is home to the country’s last remaining stock of original and naturally landlocked salmon. The demolition of the dams will happen in phases over three years starting in 2021. By freeing this river, these valuable fish will finally be able to migrate to their traditional spawning grounds again.

“It all started with the TV ad, produced by a partner seafood retailer that we successfully challenged into working with us on rivers and migratory fish,” Sampsa recalls. “A major donor contacted me after seeing the ad, met me in a cafeteria, and offered us a hefty donation to support our field work on larger dam removals! This shows the power of communications!”

From just one person working on dam removal, WWF was able to hire three more people in the project to help restore rivers to their natural state.
Here's a video showing all three dams that will be removed along the Hiitolanjoki river.
A confluence of people and passion

“You cannot take down dams with your computer,” Sampsa says, referring to the importance of working closely with people. “You need to go out there, work on the ground, in the field, and with local communities.”

“When people see you and see your relevance, they begin to follow you and support you. And they allow you to support them! Such is the power of interpersonal communications,” he adds.

Sampsa emphasized that it’s been through working in-situ that the team got to learn about the real issues and bottlenecks on the ground. And this has helped position WWF as an expert and the main advocate for dam removal.


WWF-Finland has managed to remove a total of 30 dams and other migration obstacles over the past several years and this wouldn’t have been possible without staff being out there, showing communities their passion to help. Today, people approach WWF, asking for help to remove dams, some of which they’ve been struggling to take down for as long as 30 years.

“Passion is important,” Sampsa stresses. “You have to find people with the same passion.”


He also adds that, “we must be ready to step on someone’s toes if necessaryenergy companies, politicians. In our line of work, you will inevitably make someone uneasy. But you need to do this if you want to make real change. In the end, what matters is the positive impact we are bringing to people and nature.”