Big boost to climate action as 38 countries join the Freshwater Challenge

Posted on December, 10 2023

The Freshwater Challenge aims to ensure 300,000km of degraded rivers and 350 million hectares of degraded wetlands are committed to restoration by 2030, and to protect freshwater ecosystems.
In a major boost to global efforts to mitigate climate change and adapt its worsening impacts on societies and economies, 37 countries today joined the Freshwater Challenge - the world’s largest initiative to restore degraded rivers, lakes and wetlands and to protect vital freshwater ecosystems.
The countries from Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America, and the Pacific were unveiled at a high level event with 15 Ministers hosted by the COP28 Presidency. They joined the six countries that launched the initiative at the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York - Colombia, DR Congo, Ecuador, Gabon, Mexico and Zambia.
The champions and new members - including Botswana, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Canada, Chad, Chile, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Fiji, France, Finland, Gambia, Germany, Iraq, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Nepal, Netherlands, Niger, Norway, Pakistan, Peru, Republic of Congo, Senegal, Slovenia, Spain, Tajikistan, Tanzania, UAE, Uganda, UK, USA and Zimbabwe - contain over 30% of the world’s renewable freshwater resources and are home to almost 2 billion people.
The Freshwater Challenge aims to ensure 300,000km of degraded rivers - equivalent to more than seven times around the Earth - and 350 million hectares of degraded wetlands, an area larger than India, are committed to restoration by 2030, as well as conserve intact ecosystems.
Healthy freshwater ecosystems are critical to mitigating and adapting to climate change. They are seen as the foundation for a water resilient future. Peatlands are the world’s largest terrestrial carbon store, while river sediment deposited on the sea floor can also sequester large quantities of carbon. Connected floodplains and healthy wetlands can reduce the impact of extreme floods and build resilience to ever increasing droughts.
Thriving mangroves - most of which depend on sediment flow from rivers to survive - help protect coastal communities from storm surges. Densely-populated and agriculturally-rich deltas also rely on the flow of water, nutrients and sediments down rivers to limit salt water intrusion, remain fertile, and stay above the rising seas.
Yet one-third of the world’s wetlands have been lost over the past 50 years, and we are still losing them faster than forests. Rivers and lakes are the most degraded ecosystems in the world and climate change is now exacerbating the already unprecedented threats.
HE Razan Al Mubarak, UN Climate Change High-Level Champion for COP28 said, "With the climate crisis fuelling ever more extreme floods, storms, wildfires and droughts, we urgently need to invest in protecting and restoring our rivers, lakes and wetlands. They are the best natural protection for our societies and economies as well as major carbon stores. Rising to the Freshwater Challenge is key to tackling climate change, but it is also essential to pave the way to a net-zero, nature-positive and resilient future for all.”
Along with accelerating climate action, restoring and protecting healthy freshwater ecosystems will also boost water, food and energy security, enhance peace and stability, reverse nature loss and drive sustainable development.
H.E. Collins Nzovu, Minister of Green Economy and Environment, Zambia said: “The climate crisis is a water crisis. Across the globe, we are witnessing its devastating impacts on our societies and economies - from increasing water scarcity to more extreme floods, droughts and storms, from changing river flows to melting glaciers and rising seas. And these impacts will only get worse: unless we rise to the Freshwater Challenge. So we urge all countries to join us in the Freshwater Challenge. Together, we can reverse the loss and degradation of our rivers, lakes and wetlands - and drastically enhance global efforts to tackle the climate crisis.”
The Freshwater Challenge is a country-driven initiative with an inclusive, collaborative approach to implementation, where governments and their partners will co-create freshwater solutions with indigenous people, local communities, and other stakeholders, including the private sector. During the COP28 event, AB InBev, BCG and IKEA all expressed their support for the Freshwater Challenge.
The Freshwater Challenge calls on all governments to commit to clear targets in their updated National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans, National Determined Contributions, National Adaptation Plans, and National Implementation Plan for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to drastically scale up efforts to protect and restore healthy freshwater ecosystems. It builds on the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which included the protection of 30% of the world’s ‘inland waters’ and the restoration of 30% of degraded ‘inland waters’.
Stuart Orr, WWF Global Freshwater Lead said, “Healthy rivers, lakes and wetlands are our best buffer and insurance against the worsening impacts of climate change.  Investing in their protection and restoration will produce the most important returns: strengthening climate adaptation and reducing disaster risk as well as increasing water and food security, and reversing the catastrophic decline in freshwater biodiversity. But we need to find new pathways to address this urgently.”
The Freshwater Challenge will also focus on providing the evidence needed at country level to effectively design and implement restoration measures, identify priority areas for restoration, update relevant national strategies and plans, and mobilise resources and set up financial mechanisms to implement the targets.
Led by the coalition of countries, the Freshwater Challenge is supported by Conservation International, IUCN, the Secretariat of the Convention on Wetlands, The Nature Conservancy, Wetlands International, OECD, UNEP (under the auspices of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration), and WWF.

Susan Gardner, Director of the Ecosystems Division, UNEP said, “Healthy freshwater ecosystems are essential for our survival. They are also severely impacted by, but help us to combat, the crises of biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change. UNEP commends this country-led initiative and the number of countries signing up to accelerate and align with the commitments in the Paris Agreement and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework."
James Dalton, IUCN said “At this critical moment in the UNFCCC negotiations, where countries take stock of progress and we collectively look at the challenges ahead, the Freshwater Challenge will mobilise country, community and corporate action to restore freshwater ecosystems for both adaptation and mitigation needs.”
Francesca Antonelli, Head of Rivers & Lakes at Wetlands International said: "Healthy rivers, lakes, peatlands and marshes are key to addressing the climate emergency. The Freshwater Challenge will show how to accelerate and scale up the safeguarding and restoration of wetland ecosystems, and the urgency of tackling the drivers of wetland destruction. COP28 promised to give new prominence to water in climate mitigation and adaptation, and the conclusions of the Global Stocktake must also recognise more strongly than ever the crucial role of water and wetlands in delivering the Paris Agreement.”
Nicole Silk, Global Director of Freshwater Outcomes at The Nature Conservancy said: “Healthy freshwater systems are at the heart of demonstrated, cost-effective, equitable and readily available solutions to the triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. Yet they have long been undervalued, and particularly underrepresented in the global climate agenda. We must do better. The Freshwater Challenge, and the momentum it’s generating among country leaders at COP28, shows the world is ready for a fresh approach – one that puts fresh water first.”
Maíra Ometto Bezerra, Freshwater Science Lead with Conservation International said: “The fast-increasing number of countries signing-on to the Freshwater Challenge underscores that we are at a watershed moment for freshwater and healthy watersheds. It is more than clear that nations across the world recognize that healthy freshwater ecosystems are a major solution to climate change mitigation and adaptation. Conservation International is deeply invested in working together with countries to effectively create and implement natural climate solutions that tackle the water and climate crises at the same time.”
Christina Niemelä-Ström, Head of Sustainability, IKEA Supply said: “IKEA welcomes the country-led Freshwater Challenge and encourages more countries in risk areas to join, recognising the importance of collective action to solve the challenges in restoring and protecting water ecosystems. We are committed to do our part, working together with governments, NGOs and local communities. As part of our commitment to be good water stewards, we are currently identifying the most important river basins linked to our supply chains, addressing water scarcity.”
Protecting and restoring rivers, lakes and wetlands is central to climate action and resilience
© Matevž Lenarčič

Related links

Pantanal - the world's largest tropical wetland
© Andre Dib/WWF
Healthy rivers, lakes and wetlands are central to climate mitigation and adaptation
© © Patrik Oening Rogigues / WWF-Brazil
Climate change is driving more extreme floods
Climate change is exacerbating threats to freshwater ecoystems and the people that rely on them
© WWF / Simon Rawles
Major dam removal in Finland involving government, hydropower company and WWF
© Mikko Nikkinen/WWF