Freshwater Conservation: An interview with Dr William Darwall

Image © Will Darwall

By |2022-08-15T15:17:24+00:00July 12th, 2018|Conservation, Fish, Freshwater, Hydropower, Interviews, Species|Comments Off on Freshwater Conservation: An interview with Dr William Darwall

Dr William Darwall is Head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Biodiversity Assessment and Knowledge Team (BAKT) – Freshwater Unit at the IUCN Global Species Programme, based in Cambridge. The goal of the IUCN BAKT – Freshwater Unit is to provide information on species and sites of importance to freshwater biodiversity to inform conservation development, policy and planning. A major part of this work is getting better coverage of freshwater species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Synchronicity Earth has been supporting the IUCN BAKT – Freshwater Unit since 2013. In this interview, we spoke to Will about the challenges facing freshwater conservationists and about his own experiences in the field.

Q: How and why did you initially become involved in freshwater conservation?

I actually started off in marine conservation. But, from a very young age I’ve always been interested in freshwater species through the aquarium hobby. I used to keep fish tanks in particular for the very entertaining African cichlids. But probably the very first inspiration for me was when my sister won a goldfish, called Bert, at the funfair!

I’ve always been interested in the aquatic side of things. I worked on guppy behaviour for my PhD, but it wasn’t until an opportunity came up to do some work on Lake Tanganyika that I started getting more involved in freshwater conservation. I spent about 6 months there helping to develop an underwater survey programme for species in the lake. I’ve always been interested in these African cichlids, so Lake Tanganyika was an amazing place to spend time. I brought some of the survey methods from marine conservation, and we trained scientists from all four countries which border the lake: first to swim, then to dive and then to do the underwater survey. After that, I got a job on Lake Malawi for a few years, so by then I was already mainly freshwater focused and thoroughly hooked!

Q: Why should people care about freshwater environments and species?

For me, there are three main reasons to care. Firstly, a reason which I think Synchronicity Earth shares with me: we need to care about all species on this planet, not just those that are ‘cute’ and ‘cuddly’.

As a background to that, as far back as 1982, a number of countries signed up to the UN World Charter for Nature, which stated that we should protect all species, regardless of their apparent worth to people – sadly this viewpoint seems to have disappeared in more recent times.

Freshwater species are not insignificant – around a quarter of the world’s vertebrates live in freshwater, and about half the world’s fish!

Most people think that there are far more marine fish, but in fact almost half of the world’s fish live in freshwater ecosystems. We need to look after them all.

Secondly, if people took the time to really look closely at what species we have in freshwater ecosystems, they would see that there are some amazing creatures in there. But freshwater species get very little attention, they aren’t in the public eye like other terrestrial and marine species. In some ways, this is a ‘PR’ issue – communicating the wonder and value of these species is just not working very well, so addressing this is very high on the agenda of things we need to do. A great start would be to have a top-level documentary series focusing on freshwater ecosystems.

Yacare caiman (Caiman yacare), Pantanal, Brazil. Photo: Michel Roggo

The third reason is more pragmatic. Freshwater ecosystems provide us with many benefits, commonly referred to as ‘ecosystem services’. The current focus for government is on provision of these services, and particularly since the financial crisis, is on investing in conservation which has a notable benefit to people. Looking at freshwater, it is not hard to see where these benefits lie. The services provided by functioning freshwater ecosystems are of incredibly high value – one global estimate put their value at around USD 4 trillion a year! From a human perspective, freshwater ecosystems provide us with so much, for example:

  • Clean, accessible drinking water: functioning wetlands are very important for water purification and water retention. During dry seasons, if you’ve got wetlands upstream, they retain and slowly release water so that you have a constant supply of water throughout the year. These upper wetlands are sometimes called ‘the world’s water towers’.
  • Food: inland fisheries are far more significant than people appreciate. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) fully admit that their estimates of production from inland fisheries are hugely underestimated – the information simply isn’t being recorded as it is at an artisanal scale. On balance there is likely to be a lot more unreported artisanal fishing than large scale commercial fishing in inland waters. And it’s not just fish that are targeted, it’s shrimps, prawns, crabs and even molluscs: there is a huge industry based on these species in many parts of the world.
  • Carbon storage: freshwater ecosystems play a vital role in sequestering carbon. There’s some really good work being done by Wetlands International and others highlighting the value of peatlands which constitute around 50% of the world’s wetlands. The services they provide are huge and not fully realised, certainly within current policy.
  • Recreational benefits and human wellbeing: the world’s lakes and rivers also provide excellent recreational opportunities and provide people with a great sense of well-being. Personally I feel great whenever I’m near water, it takes you away from the everyday worries of the world.

Spreading our biodiversity bets

It would be a mistake of course to look solely at the benefits of freshwater ecosystems to human populations, because that can lead to the notion that those species without any apparent benefits to people should be considered redundant and therefore expendable. We really need to push back against this type of thinking. Our environment is currently undergoing huge and rapid change: species that are thriving at the moment may not do so well in the future, while there are other species that we think we might consider expendable and which aren’t very significant or abundant right now which may be the only species that do well in the future.

Thinking like an investment banker – we need to invest in conserving a broad portfolio of biodiversity for the future.

It’s just like investing in stocks and shares. You don’t just invest in shares that happens to be doing very well at the time, because conditions change. It’s the same for biodiversity, we need to look after it all, spreading our bets to ensure a profitable future for biodiversity.

Q: What are the greatest and most urgent threats to freshwater biodiversity?

Based on the analysis of the work we’ve done for the IUCN Red List – where we look at the specific threats for each species we are assessing – the biggest threat is the loss and degradation of habitat. For example, about 75% of the world’s inland wetlands have been lost, just in the last century.

There are various drivers behind this habitat loss: conversion for agriculture is a major factor. There is also a perception that wetlands are not very useful. They often have a reputation as disease-infested swamps that we’d be better off getting rid of, so they are converted to rice farming or sugarcane, or golf courses, or whatever – people think there are better ways of using the land.

In Europe, where we have spent many years converting wetlands to other uses, we are now spending billions of Euros trying to restore these systems to their former glory! People are finally beginning to understand the value of functioning wetland ecosystems, for example, in flood control. The concern is that in many parts of the world, there won’t be the kind of finance that is needed to restore wetlands once destroyed, so it is vital to avoid initial degradation. This is a challenge, especially if you’re working in developing countries. People see that in Europe or the US we’ve made a lot of money out of “destroying” our wetland systems, but now we’re effectively saying that nobody else should be allowed to do that! What they don’t necessarily see is that we’re now paying a very high price for this destruction.

One of the greatest threats to freshwater ecosystems is of course the global proliferation of dams, often, but not exclusively, for hydropower. Whatever their purpose, dams have a huge impact transforming freshwater ecosystems from rivers into lakes, disrupting downstream water flow, and blocking fish migration routes. There are currently no really good solutions for dealing with fish migration routes being blocked: in most places, fish passes are not particularly effective. Despite all this hydropower is still widely portrayed as green energy, but we know this is often not the case and it should not be portrayed as such.