Challenges of freshwater protected areas
The primary purpose of national parks and other protected areas is to conserve viable and representative populations of species and ecosystems in perpetuity. So how can this be achieved for freshwater species and habitats? This article outlines some of the challenges facing conservation of freshwater ecosystems and future directions for freshwater protected area establishment and management.
Freshwater habitats are those ecosystems that depend on water flows for their environmental health, and can include caves, swamps, floodplains, rivers, lakes, salt pans and estuaries. The term ‘wetlands' is often used to describe these habitats (a terms that the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands uses to include marine habitats that are less than 6 meters deep).
Estimates of the global extent of wetland habitats range from 5.7 to 12.8 million km2. The extent of wetlands in protected areas is also hard to measure. Ramsar sites covering around 100 million hectares include freshwater habitats (but include some terrestrial and marine habitats too), around 7.8% of the larger estimates of the world’s freshwater habitats.
The freshwater biodiversity challenge
Freshwater habitats are the most species rich per unit and their biodiversity is being lost faster than either the forest and marine biomes, with a 50% decline in the freshwater species population index in the 30 years since 1970, according to WWF’s 2002 ‘Living Planet Report’. Further, since 1900 50% of the world’s wetlands have been lost. Does this mean that those of us in government and NGOs charged with conservation of biodiversity have failed freshwater biodiversity far more than for other biomes?
Freshwater habitats, more than for forest and marine biomes, depend on maintaining ecological processes that can originate far outside national park boundaries. Appropriate water flows within an entire water catchment are usually essential for wetland vegetation health and freshwater species migration, breeding and feeding within protected areas. These environmental flows are easily disrupted, for example by dams, which can reduce the volume, timing and quality of water flows essential for the survival of downstream habitats and species within parks. Hence protected area advocates need to carefully site parks and influence sustainable use of natural resources within entire river catchments outside parks to successfully conserve freshwater biodiversity with these protected areas.
This is a formidable task. There are already more than 45,000 large dams around the world with another 1,500 planned or under construction, including in some of the most biodiverse rivers like the Yangtze, Mekong, Amazon and Orinoco Rivers. Already more than 60% of the world’s major rivers are fragmented by dams. The threat is growing. Currently humans appropriate 54 per cent of accessible runoff. Barring some dramatic changes, by 2050 at least one in four people are predicted to live in countries affected by chronic or recurring shortages of freshwater. Some rivers no longer reach the sea, starving freshwater and estuarine habitats in protected areas of life-giving water (see UN World Water Development Report). Further many remaining waters are already terribly polluted and afflicted by invasive species.
The 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (see WSSD Plan of Implementation) added targets to the UN’s 2015 Millennium Development Goals to extend water supplies and energy to the poor, and to extend agricultural production, that currently consumes 70% of the water diverted world wide. Coupled with growing demand for cleaner electricity to minimize climate change, the pressure to build more dams and consume freshwater resources is growing. A challenge for protected areas advocates is to influence their governments’ national poverty reduction, sustainable development and integrated water resources management plans to adopt measures that deliver services for people while conserving freshwater biodiversity.
Further, as freshwater habitats are often a focus for human settlement and can be heavily used and modified, establishing representative freshwater protected areas systems requires a lot of negotiations and partnerships with local people, and use of IUCN categories V and VI. Perhaps it is for some of these reasons that many protected areas authorities have failed to directly address conservation of freshwater biodiversity in protected areas. One example is the 2003 United Nations List of Protected Areas (UNEP, WCMC, IUCN), which fails to report on conservation of freshwater habitats, as opposed to terrestrial and marine habitats, other than for lake systems.
How then can the international community and protected areas advocated and managers enhance freshwater biodiversity conservation?
One key avenue is the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands that is now the world’s largest protected areas system, covering 1,374 sites (just over 1% of the world’s protected areas) and 1.2 million km2 (over 6% of the world’s 18.8million km2 area of parks) on its Register of Wetlands of International Importance [as at 27/8/04]. While often mistaken as just a migratory water birds treaty, in fact the Convention’s 140 member governments commit their countries to: a) identify and conserve wetlands of international importance as Ramsar sites; b) conserve and use wisely all wetlands on their territory, and c) cooperate with their neighbours to sustainably manage wetlands.
This treaty has a number of benefits for wetlands conservation since it: creates moral pressure for member governments to establish and manage wetland protected areas; sets standards and provides guidance on best practice; has a triennial global reporting and monitoring system; and encourages participation of NGOs, local and Indigenous peoples. As Ramsar sites can be established over any land tenure, it is also a great tool for establishing protected areas in collaboration with Indigenous and private land holders.
However Ramsar’s major drawback remains the variable quality of legal protection afforded to Ramsar sites by different national governments and their commitment to fully implement their treaty obligations. While Ramsar is possibly the best implemented of the world’s environment treaties, many national governments can do more to fulfill their obligations by adopting a “strategic framework for the Ramsar list” and a national wetlands strategy.
By contrast, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has been slow in building momentum for conservation of freshwater habitats. Fortunately at its February 2004 conference the member governments adopted a Plan of Work on Protected Areas that agreed to establish and fund complete systems of protected areas by 2009.
A provision in the Plan calls on the countries to rectify the under-representation of inland water ecosystems in their protected area systems. However, the Plan does not call for the adequate allocation and reservation of water for protected areas.
A Plan of Work for Inland Waters based on integrated river basin management was also adopted along with a provision calling on Parties to provide minimum water allocations to maintain function and integrity of freshwater ecosystems.
Solutions for protected areas managers
Protected areas managers should initiate and participate in freshwater conservation actions within their country or region. Three examples of methods for better conserving freshwater habitats within protected areas are:
1. Better planning
Good planning for freshwater protected areas can ensure protected areas are in the right place to better conserve biodiversity and to maintain the hydrological cycle needed to ensure these parks are resilient. WWF has published a guide for freshwater conservation planners, “A sourcebook for conducting biological assessments and developing biodiversity visions for freshwater ecoregions”. Key elements include: defining representative freshwater habitats and species needs; identifying and establishing protected areas to conserve this biodiversity; maintaining connectivity by protecting stream corridors; and where possible protecting altitudinal gradients and entire catchments as free flowing.
2. River basin management
Ensuring that the right quality and quantity of water reaches parks at the right time requires the cooperation of all major water users, stakeholders and governments upstream of a reserve. In many countries around the world, ranging from Brazil to South Africa to Australia, river basin management organizations have been established to set goals for catchment management and implement agreements and activities to achieve them. Measures adopted may include capping water diversions and agreeing on the share of water available to each user, conserving and rehabilitating river corridors, managing fishing, and reducing sources of pollution. (See some of the lessons learnt from WWF’s river basin work)
One example is the Murray River in Australia, where water extraction has reached around 80% of available flows starving the riverine habitats and estuary of water and leading, among other impacts, to large scale death of floodplain forests. In November 2003 the Murray Darling Basin Commission identified five park and Ramsar Site areas plus the river channel as ‘key ecological assets’ and reallocated 500 gigalitres of water (equivalent to the volume of Sydney Harbour) to help restore their health. The governments allocated AUD$500 million (~US$300 million) to secure this water by reducing wastage and buying back water rights.
Another example is Lake Malawi/Nyasa/Niassa - one of the world’s most biodiverse basins, containing 14% of the world’s freshwater fish species. Shared by Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique, poverty and lack of integrated management have led to deforestation and erosion, that has degraded freshwater habitats, and over fishing. WWF in partnership with the three governments and local communities prepared a biological vision and ecoregional plan for the Lake basin, which identified three key tributary river basin catchments and 20 priority areas (including Lake Malawi National Park, a World Heritage Site) in the lake to focus on for conservation and protected areas establishment. WWF is also working with the FAO and the three national governments to establish a lake basin management commission to facilitate its collaborative and sustainable management.
3. Securing environmental flows
Maintaining the right water or ‘environmental flows’ through parks is crucial for conserving freshwater biodiversity. Recently IUCN has published an excellent guide: “Flow – the essentials of environmental flows”. Some of the key points are to know what natural values you are trying to conserve, and what sort of water flows are needed to achieve their conservation, then form agreements with upstream water users and governments to deliver the right quality water at the best times. Some tools may then include: securing water rights; maintaining a major tributary stream as free flowing to provide natural variability in water flows; and using small, in-channel dams to either push smaller volumes of water out over floodplains, or to dry out wetlands (some types of wetlands actually need to dry out in the dry season to be healthy) in accord with more natural water cycles.
Banrock Station is a 1,375 ha floodplain wetland Ramsar site (since October 2002) on Australia’s Murray River. It is privately owned by a wine producing company. The management plan for this wetland park gives priority to maintaining a more natural water regime since the Murray River is used extensively for irrigation, reducing water volumes and reversing seasonal high and low flows, wrecking the river’s ecology. Consequently the plan is written to comply with state (provincial) water allocation laws as well as federal government environmental laws for Ramsar sites to secure water in the right season to improve its health.
The 6,500 km2 Kafue Flats in Zambia was one of the world’s richest wildlife habitats, but after the Itezhi-tezhi Dam was constructed in the 1970’s as part of the hydroelectricity scheme that supplies 50% of Zambia’s power, the loss of wet season flooding greatly diminished the wildlife of the 50,000 ha Blue Lagoon and 60,000 ha Lochinvar National Parks. The populations of Kafue lechwe, a threatened antelope species, have declined by 60%. In May 2004 an agreement negotiated between WWF and the Zambian Government and its Electricity Supply Company was signed to restore a natural flooding regime to benefit both the environmental health of the Flats and local people’s livelihoods. In collaboration with the local community and commercial sugar farmers, a new 50,000 ha Mwanachingwala Conservation Area will also be established.
As park advocates and managers we have an obligation to lead efforts to conserve biodiversity, but for freshwater species and habitats we are failing thus far. The threats to freshwater biodiversity are being exacerbated by increasing global demand for water, irrigated agricultural products and hydroelectricity. There are solutions, and as park advocates and managers there are many practical things we can do to promote sustainable management of the basins (or catchments or watersheds) upstream from parks to secure the water flows needed to fulfill our mission to conserve freshwater as well as all other biodiversity.
* Jamie Pittock is Director of WWF's Global Freshwater Programme
This article was first published in the National Parks
International Bulletin and is reproduced here with kind permission.