Countries gather together to meet the Freshwater Challenge

Posted on June, 04 2024

First working meeting of the Country Members of the world’s largest freshwater protection and restoration initiative
With water risks and water-related impacts of climate change worsening across the globe, Members of the Freshwater Challenge met in Switzerland on May 31st for their first collective working session to chart the most effective course for the initiative – in order to accelerate action to protect and restore the world’s rivers, lakes and wetlands and in doing so build more resilient societies, economies and ecosystems.

Launched at the UN Water Conference in March 2023 and significantly boosted by a Ministerial meeting hosted by the COP28 Presidency in Dubai, the Freshwater Challenge now boasts 45 Member countries and the European Union.

With momentum building behind the initiative – which aims to ensure 300,000km of degraded rivers and 350 million hectares of degraded wetlands are under restoration by 2030 as well as protect critical freshwater ecosystems – the existing members gathered at the conservation center in Gland to take the next steps towards operationalizing the initiative.

“We are encouraged that so many Member countries are here today, in person and virtually, to collectively agree on the next critical steps for the Challenge,” said Jean Herve, Gabon’s Director General of Aquatic ecosystems in the Ministry of Water and Forests in his opening address to the meeting. “Gabon is proud to be a champion of this initiative and we are here to work with you all to operationalize the Challenge so that all Members can start prioritising our rivers and wetlands for restoration and protection – and mobilising the technical support and funding to achieve our targets.”

“We are meeting today at a critical moment,” Herve added. “It is time to turn the promise of the Freshwater Challenge into practice.”

And that was the key aim of the meeting - to co-develop the next stage of the Freshwater Challenge, including focusing on protection and restoration methodologies, institutional arrangements and funding pathways. Members also highlighted the value of knowledge sharing and peer-to-peer learning through initiatives such as the Freshwater Challenge. This meeting aimed to provide a platform to enable that and foster relationship building.

Over the past year, Members have been working with the Supporting Organizations - Conservation International, IUCN, TNC, UNCCD, UNEP, Wetlands International and WWF alongside the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands - to outline the overall direction of the Challenge but this meeting was the first time that Members came together to focus on the essential details of the initiative.

“Momentum really started to build in Dubai thanks to the engagement of the COP28 Presidency,  which helped to scale the Challenge through the Ministerial meeting and their  continued involvement since then, including highlighting the Challenge in two events at the World Water Forum earlier this month in Bali,” said Stuart Orr, WWF Global Freshwater Lead on behalf of the Supporting Organizations. “Today, you the Members will start turning the promise of the world’s largest protection and restoration initiative into practice.”

“This is an unprecedented opportunity to fashion an initiative that will support countries to achieve their national targets across a range of global conventions - and together will contribute enormously to delivering a net-zero, nature-positive, resilient and sustainable future,” added Orr.

With over two thirds of current Members in attendance, the meeting made significant progress on a range of critical areas as well as highlighting some of the progress that Members have already made, including a presentation from the US on how they have incorporated the initiative into their national policy with the launch of the ambitious “America the Beautiful Freshwater Challenge”.

Needless to say there is still considerable work to be done. The meeting acknowledged the need to ensure the Challenge leverages existing knowledge, expertise and funding where possible, while also assessing where gaps need to be filled. But there is now a clear shared ambition for accelerated action on protection and restoration of rivers, lakes, peatlands, mangroves and other wetlands.

This is absolutely critical because healthy freshwater ecosystems are central to enhancing water and food security, reversing nature loss, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and driving sustainable development.

Closing the meeting, Permanent Secretary Eng Joe Kalus, Zambia’s Ministry of Water and Sanitation said, “Looking around the room today, I am proud of what we have achieved in a short space of time and hopeful for the future of the Challenge and, most importantly, what this will mean for our societies, economies and ecosystems. I look forward to working with you all in the coming months to build on the work we have done today. And to our next meeting when we will have more progress to report – and I’m sure, new Members of the Challenge.”

“Together, we can protect and restore our rivers, lakes and wetlands - and so meet our national targets and power global efforts to tackle the great challenges of our era,” added Kalus. “Together, we can rise to the Freshwater Challenge.
First Country Meeting of the Freshwater Challenge in Swizterland (May 2024)

Related links

Working meeting to chart the course ahead for the Freshwater Challenge
Healthy rivers are critical for people and nature
Protecting and restoring healthy rivers is central to reversing nature loss and adapting to climate change
© Matevž Lenarčič