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Countries must step up efforts to protect freshwater sources, say experts

  • Countries must step up efforts to protect freshwater sources, say experts
    Credit: CIFOR/Ramadian Bachtiar

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The leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda, promotes the coherent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development within the United Nations system.

In China, parts of Asia’s longest river, the Yangtse, are seeing record low water levels, causing disruption to hydropower, halting shipping and forcing major companies to suspend operations. Millions of people have faced power cuts. Meanwhile, in Germany, the Rhine’s unusually low level has affected shipping and the economy.

Across many parts of the planet in 2022, we have seen the cascading impacts of the climate crisis on freshwater ecosystems, with increasingly frequent and intense dry periods interspersed with floods and extreme precipitation. Over the past five years, one in five river basins has experienced fluctuations in surface water outside their natural range.

These examples highlight the dangers of taking freshwater ecosystems for granted, say environmental experts. As the world marks World Water Week, which runs from 23 August to 1 September in Stockholm, countries are urged to do more to protect their lakes, rivers and wetlands, that are often overlooked when it comes to conservation.

“Freshwater ecosystems have outsize benefits for society, climate, nature, biodiversity and economies, so protecting them is a top priority,” says Joakim Harlin, Chief of the Freshwater Ecosystems Unit at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Across many parts of the planet in 2022, we have seen the cascading impacts of the climate crisis on freshwater ecosystems

A further threat to surface water habitats – home to 10 per cent of all known species with 55 per cent of all fish relying on freshwater ecosystems for their survival – is pollution. UNEP research shows that around one-third of all rivers in Latin America, Africa and Asia suffer from severe pathogenic pollution. Severe organic pollution is found in around one-seventh of all rivers, and severe and moderate salinity pollution in around one-tenth of all rivers.

A recently published global study backed by UNEP says humanity’s tendency to undervalue the natural world has sparked a global biodiversity crisis that is pushing 1 million species towards extinction.

One of the report’s conclusions is that political and economic decisions are too often based on a narrow set of market values that do not take into account the intrinsic, spiritual, cultural and recreational values of ecosystems. Wetlands, for instance, have tremendous cultural value, including for indigenous peoples, and are a haven for everyone from bird watchers to adventure seekers.

Inland vegetated wetlands especially have long been undervalued. Over much of the past 200 years, peatlands and marshes have been seen as unproductive swamps. Some 85 per cent of them have been lost since 1700, with many of them drained to make way for development.

But emerging science suggests that peatlands pack away planet-warming carbon dioxide and store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests.

Harlin says the recent report demonstrates that “achieving a sustainable and just future requires us to recognize and integrate the contribution of wetlands to people and their well-being.”

Wildfires are affecting peatlands even in the Arctic. The photo shows burned Picea mariana, a spruce tree in the pine family, on peatland in Alaska. Credit: Uni-Greifswald/Hans Jooste
He says there are five keys to preserving freshwater ecosystems. “We should stop destroying and start restoring wetlands; stop over-extracting from rivers and aquifers; ensure connectivity for fish and other aquatic species along water pathways; address pollution and clean up freshwater sources, and use wetlands wisely and integrate water and wetlands into development plans and resource management.”
Safeguarding wetlands requires monitoring, protection, restoration, better management, finance and government prioritization. UNEP achieves progress in this area by engaging with governments and policymakers to improve water resources management, highlight emerging issues, and working with partners to gather and analyse water bodies' data, including their extent and quality over time.
One example is the UNEP-led Global Peatlands Initiative, a partnership tackling the nature and climate crisis through south-south collaboration for the restoration and sustainable management of peatlands.
Toolkits such as the Freshwater Ecosystems Explorer and collaboration with scientists, researchers and data analysts around the world supported by the UNEP-DHI Centre on Water and the Environment enable up-to-date and reliable flows of information for policymakers and the wider water community.

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