Freshwater is paramount to all life on Earth, providing food, hydration, sanitation, nutrient-cycling, carbon-storage and climate regulation. Freshwater ecosystems cover less than one per cent of the earth’s surface, yet are home to up to 50 per cent of all fish species. Despite their importance, freshwater biodiversity is currently low down on environmental priorities and as such receives little funding or political attention and protection.
Over exploitation of freshwater as well as the impact of fishing and agricultural practices and the pressure of climate change and economic development, has had enormous implications. Many freshwater species have already become extinct and almost one in three freshwater species is currently threatened by extinction. Humans are also affected – particularly the world’s poorest. Continued freshwater ecosystem damage, along with the impacts of climate change will result in many more people lacking access to sanitation and drinking water and will have dire implications for the two billion people who rely on freshwater for food.
One of the biggest drivers of freshwater ecosystem damage is the development of large-scale hydropower dams, or megadams. Built to supply ‘greener’ forms of energy, they are often associated with widespread damage to rivers and their tributaries with adverse effects on wildlife and human populations. In addition to the threat caused to wildlife, tens of millions of people have already been displaced by dams, hundreds of millions have lost their livelihoods as a result and many more dams are currently being built or planned. A vicious cycle ensues: people, deprived of their livelihoods and homes turn to neighbouring habitats – often causing further damage to the environment.
To start to address these threats, we support groups working across three focal themes: raising the profile of freshwater conservation and biodiversity; reducing negative impacts of large-scale dams; and restoring and protecting freshwater habitats. We focus on supporting partners in sub-Saharan Africa, a region with rich freshwater biodiversity and one which receives just a tiny proportion of the small amount of funds available for freshwater conservation, yet where large scale hydropower development is gathering momentum and is likely to have significant impacts on people and environment. More recently we have expanded the portfolio to include Southeast Asia, where many of the world’s rivers are at massive threat of development and where huge numbers of people rely on freshwater for subsistence and livelihoods. In addition, we are focusing on initiatives that are improving the available information on freshwater biodiversity and conservation and that have an integrated approach to wetlands restoration and protection.