An index-based framework for assessing patterns and trends in river fragmentation and flow regulation by global dams at multiple scales

Günther Grill, Bernhard Lehner, Alexander E. Lumsdon, Graham K. Macdonald, Christiane Zarfl, Catherine Reidy Liermann

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228 Scopus citations


The global number of dam constructions has increased dramatically over the past six decades and is forecast to continue to rise, particularly in less industrialized regions. Identifying development pathways that can deliver the benefits of new infrastructure while also maintaining healthy and productive river systems is a great challenge that requires understanding the multifaceted impacts of dams at a range of scales. New approaches and advanced methodologies are needed to improve predictions of how future dam construction will affect biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and fluvial geomorphology worldwide, helping to frame a global strategy to achieve sustainable dam development. Here, we respond to this need by applying a graph-based river routing model to simultaneously assess flow regulation and fragmentation by dams at multiple scales using data at high spatial resolution. We calculated the cumulative impact of a set of 6374 large existing dams and 3377 planned or proposed dams on river connectivity and river flow at basin and subbasin scales by fusing two novel indicators to create a holistic dam impact matrix for the period 1930-2030. Static network descriptors such as basin area or channel length are of limited use in hierarchically nested and dynamic river systems, so we developed the river fragmentation index and the river regulation index, which are based on river volume. These indicators are less sensitive to the effects of network configuration, offering increased comparability among studies with disparate hydrographies as well as across scales. Our results indicate that, on a global basis, 48% of river volume is moderately to severely impacted by either flow regulation, fragmentation, or both. Assuming completion of all dams planned and under construction in our future scenario, this number would nearly double to 93%, largely due to major dam construction in the Amazon Basin. We provide evidence for the importance of considering small to medium sized dams and for the need to include waterfalls to establish a baseline of natural fragmentation. Our versatile framework can serve as a component of river fragmentation and connectivity assessments; as a standardized, easily replicable monitoring framework at global and basin scales; and as part of regional dam planning and management strategies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number015001
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 IOP Publishing Ltd.


  • dams
  • flow regulation
  • global change
  • river fragmentation
  • river network routing


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