The state of freshwater: reasons for hope

Fisherman in the Mekong River © Shutterstock

By |2020-10-19T08:56:14+00:00October 14th, 2020|Conservation Optimism, Freshwater, Hydropower, Rivers|Comments Off on The state of freshwater: reasons for hope

The state of biodiversity has been in the news again these past few weeks, with high-profile reports like the Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 (by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity) and Living Planet Report 2020 (by the Zoological Society of London and World Wildlife Fund) generating depressing headlines. Among Earth’s fragile natural systems, freshwater ecosystems consistently emerge as some of the most threatened.

And yet, the ability for freshwater ecosystems and species to recover when remedial action is taken is incredibly exciting. Synchronicity Earth has been supporting freshwater conservation almost since its inception, and has witnessed extraordinary organisations making unprecedented successes. Conservation works, we just need more of it, and if we can scale up our efforts to protect freshwater for all the species dependent on it, including ourselves, these trends can be reversed.

Some of the figures on freshwater make for grim reading: 90 per cent of global wetlands have been lost since 1700, and they are being destroyed three times faster than our rainforests. The average abundance of 3,741 freshwater populations, representing 944 species, monitored across the globe declined by 84 per cent on average between 1970 and 2016. Only 37 per cent of rivers longer than 1,000 kilometres remain free-flowing over their entire length and 23 per cent flow uninterrupted to the ocean.

However, hard as these figures are to accept, they provide us with essential evidence to highlight the significant investment required to address such problems. This is one of the reasons why a key strand of our Freshwater Programme is advancing knowledge on freshwater species and ecosystems.

The Living Planet Report says that, based on available data, almost 90 per cent of global wetlands have been lost since 1700. Image © Shutterstock

Thanks to the decades of research showcased in these recent reports, we have some understanding of the highest priority regions and species, as well as the threats driving the declines, which are essential to direct conservation efforts. For example, the biggest declines in freshwater species are seen in amphibians, reptiles, and fishes.

All this research has been culminated in a six-point Emergency Recovery Plan by a global team of scientists from WWF, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Conservation International, Cardiff University and other eminent organisations and academic institutions. Each priority action in the plan has already been implemented successfully in one or more situations across the globe, providing proof of concept and lessons that can inform scaling-up of actions.

Six priority global actions to bend the curve of freshwater biodiversity loss that should be reflected in the post2020 biodiversity framework. Image: Living Planet Report 2020 Deep Dive into Freshwater, ZSL and WWF.

Large-scale national and international successes are entirely possible

Although we have created artificial borders to divide the Earth into countries, seas and oceans with invisible borders marked on maps, our waterways do not obey them. Therefore, one of the greatest challenges facing freshwater conservation is to implement large-scale action at a national and international level.

There have already been examples of this being achieved under the various steps of the Emergency Recovery Plan:

  1. Allow rivers to flow more naturally

According to Dam Removal Europe, almost 5,000 dams have already been removed across the continent and, according to American Rivers, more than 1,500 in the United States.

  1. Reducing pollution

The European Union Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive has led to widespread reduction in sewage pollution.

  1. Protecting critical wetland habitats

Approximately 60,000 hectares of floodplain wetlands have been restored along the lower Danube River as a result of an international agreement signed by ministers from Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine.

  1. Ending overfishing and unsustainable aggregate (sand, gravel, crushed rock) mining

Some of the examples by countries successfully tackling freshwater exploitation issues are Malawi’s Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Man