© Ted Alan Stedman

A CALL FOR FRESHWATER ACTION

Over 2000 sign Open Letter

Scientists, conservationists and institutions from 94 countries added their voice to calls to elevate freshwater to the same level as 'land and sea'. And it helped! While there are still lots of brackets to be resolved, freshwater is now alongside 'land & sea' in the new draft CBD framework that emerged from negotiations in Geneva in March.

Failure to elevate freshwater to the same priority as 'land and ocean' would be a fatal flaw in the new global framework for nature

We (the undersigned) are growing increasingly concerned about the fate of freshwater biodiversity in the new global framework for nature under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Despite evidence showing that freshwater habitats are experiencing 2-3 times the rate of biodiversity loss of terrestrial and marine habitats, current discussions and the draft CBD text still focus primarily on 'land and ocean' and relegate freshwater - once again - to the status of a subset of terrestrial ecosystems.

We fear that unless freshwater is elevated to the same status as 'land and ocean', the new CBD framework to be agreed in Kunming will suffer from the same structural weakness that undermined the Aichi agreement. By treating freshwater biodiversity as second class biodiversity, Aichi contributed to the ongoing marginalization - and dramatic loss - of freshwater species and ecosystems, which is having such a devastating impact on people, nature and climate.

This is despite the overwhelmingly large role that fresh waters play in supporting life on earth. Fresh waters cover less than 1% of the earth’s surface, yet rivers, lakes and freshwater wetlands are home to 10% of all species, including more than half of all fish species. But freshwater species populations have declined by 84% on average since 1970 and one third are now threatened with extinction.

If we are to change the status quo and reverse the downward trajectory for freshwater biodiversity - and for biodiversity in general - fresh waters must be a conservation priority. The new global framework for nature must elevate freshwater habitats as a unique 'domain' that merits co-equal status with ‘land and ocean’. It is time to ensure that freshwater biodiversity is no longer invisible and overlooked, but rather explicitly recognized, valued and protected.

1. Imagine if Aichi had focussed solely on 'rivers and reefs', what would have been the impact on the world’s rainforests?

Slowing deforestation has proved incredibly difficult despite tropical forests being a central focus of global science, conservation and environmental agreements. Now imagine if Aichi had not talked about 'land' at all but had specified 'rivers and reefs’ with rainforests merely as an asterisked footnote (*rainforests are under rivers), governments would have had even less incentive to act to rein in deforestation or to save forest species. Instead, they would have devoted their time to rivers and reefs, sacrificing terrestrial biodiversity as they focussed their efforts on the freshwater and marine biomes. 

The reality is that the world's efforts to halt and then reverse the loss of biodiversity have been undermined by a similarly blinkered approach that prioritizes only 'land and sea'. This approach has been (inadvertently) promoted by scientists and conservationists - two groups that are overwhelmingly dominated by experts in terrestrial biodiversity - and who have incorrectly assumed that safeguarding land areas automatically conserves the rivers that flow through them or the lakes that lie within them. Unsurprisingly, this scientific-conservationist consensus has been endorsed by governments and global agreements - so that it is now second nature for people to refer to 'land and sea' as if there are no rivers connecting the two. But the world is interconnected. We cannot halt the loss of nature, let alone restore it, unless we prioritize all three biomes - land, freshwater and sea. 

Leaving ‘freshwater’ out of the main text and relegating it to a footnote - as some parties have suggested - because it will simplify the final framework is incredibly shortsighted. It omits explicit consideration of the distinct character and status of freshwater habitats. The new global framework for nature must give them equal status. Ensuring that the agreement talks about “land, freshwater, and sea” is a simple, straightforward and significant initial step to elevate rivers, lakes, and freshwater wetlands to a status equal to terrestrial and marine domains.

2. Stop lumping rivers, lake and freshwater wetlands in with ‘protected land areas’, it results in poor outcomes for biodiversity

The new global framework for nature can finally end the tried-and-failed approach of tethering progress on the protection of freshwater ecosystems, particularly rivers, to progress on land. Freshwater habitats are highly dynamic, with hydrological connectivity (i.e., flow, sediments, and nutrients) being critical to their functioning. They have distinctive management needs that recognise and protect the crucial roles of flow, connectivity, and related ecological processes for sustaining freshwater species and habitats. Failure to recognise these distinctive needs has led to the ongoing underrepresentation of freshwater aquatic habitats - especially large, biodiverse rivers - in reserve networks and frequent failures to protect freshwater biodiversity.

Recent evidence showed that prioritizations based solely on terrestrial needs yielded just 22% of the freshwater biodiversity benefits yielded by freshwater conservation actions. The Kunming agreement can start to rectify this - transforming the global approach to freshwater conservation so that it benefits people, freshwater biodiversity and all the world’s interconnected ecosystems. 

3. Protecting more of the planet is only part of the picture: reversing the loss of freshwater biodiversity requires a transformation in the way we manage the world’s working waters

Expanding protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures is a key part of the solution to nature loss. But it is only part of the solution. The critical target for freshwater biodiversity is actually not area based: it is the percentage of working rivers and lakes that are sustainably managed. Working rivers and lakes are essential to societies and economies for drinking water, irrigation, energy, fisheries, transport and waste. We cannot ‘protect’ them but we can ‘use them wisely’ - as the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands states - for the benefit of people and freshwater biodiversity. The new global framework for nature must enshrine measures to ‘wisely use’ the world’s working waters - from restoring connectivity to implementing science-based environmental flows and the other pillars of the Sustainable Freshwater Transition in the 5th Global Biodiversity Outlook. 

4. Freshwater Matters…for people, nature and climate

Prioritizing freshwater in the new global framework is not just essential for national and global efforts to tackle the nature crisis, but also for national and global efforts to address the climate crisis and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

As the CBD Executive Secretary, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, made crystal clear in a powerful video produced by UN Water:

“The fifth Global Biodiversity Outlook outlines a sustainable freshwater transition to reverse biodiversity loss and its impact on freshwater ecosystems, species, and services. This transition recognizes the importance of biodiversity in maintaining the multiple roles of freshwater ecosystems to support human societies and natural processes, including linkages with terrestrial, coastal, and marine environments.

The post-2020 global biodiversity framework can help bend the curve of biodiversity loss by ensuring that freshwater ecosystems are protected, conserved, and wisely used; not only for our generation, but for generations to come.”

Conclusion - A stool with only two legs will never stand up

The new global framework for nature will fail to reverse the loss of nature if it focuses on ‘land and ocean’ - it would be like designing a stool with only two legs. The speed at which freshwater habitats, flora, and fauna globally are being degraded and destroyed necessitates concerted and widespread remedial action. This will only happen if the new CBD framework - and consequent national policies and action plans as well as financial investments and instruments - elevates the biodiversity of rivers, lakes, and freshwater wetlands to the same priority as forests and oceans. 

We call on governments to ensure that the new global framework works for people and nature by prioritizing measures to safeguard freshwater biodiversity:

  • Enshrine ‘land, freshwater and sea’ throughout the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, replacing all blinkered references to ‘land and sea’:
  • Incorporate a clear call to protect and restore connectivity, which is central to the health of rivers and other freshwater ecosystems and biodiversity
  • Incorporate targets linked to the pillars of the Sustainable Freshwater Transition as outlined in the CBD’s 5th Global Biodiversity Outlook:
    • Protect and restore critical habitats;
    • Integrate environmental flows into water management policy and practice;
    • Combat pollution and improve water quality;
    • Prevent overexploitation of freshwater species and resources; and
    • Prevent and control alien invasive species.

 
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