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This paper presents numerical simulations of free surface flows induced by a dam break comparing the shallow water approach to fully three-dimensional simulations. The latter are based on the solution of the complete set of Reynolds-Averaged Navier-Stokes (RANS) equations coupled to the Volume of Fluid (VOF) method. <br><br> The methods assessment and comparison are carried out on a dam break over a flat bed without friction, a dam break over a triangular bottom sill and a dam break flow over a 90° bend. Experimental and numerical literature data are compared to present results. <br><br> The results demonstrate that the shallow water approach, even if able to sufficiently reproduce the main aspects of the fluid flows, loses some three-dimensional phenomena, due to the incorrect shallow water idealization that neglects the three-dimensional aspects related to the gravity force.