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We rely on freshwater for drinking, food, and sanitation, and they’re in trouble. But freshwater issues are becoming a higher priority for conservationists.



When Grand Canyon National Park was established a century ago, the Colorado River running through it was treated as an afterthought. In the decades following, states scrambled to squeeze every drop of water out of the Colorado for farming and drinking, with a cascade of huge dams constructed along its course.

Native fish like suckers and chubs, found nowhere else in the world, were replaced with invasive catfish and bass that were more attractive for anglers. In time, the mighty river that had once carved out one of America’s most iconic landscapes was reduced to a trickle, no longer able to fulfill its destiny of reaching the sea.

What happened to the Colorado is a powerful example of a river’s decline, but it’s hardly an exception. Around the world, rivers, lakes, and wetlands have increasingly come under similar assault from poorly planned dams, pollution, habitat loss, sand mining, climate change, and the introduction of invasive species.

The result, as laid out this week in a report by 16 conservation organizations, is that freshwater ecosystems have become the most degraded in the world, with fish populations pushed to the brink. There are more kinds of freshwater fish—18,075 and counting—than there are fish species living in the oceans and seas. Freshwater vertebrate populations have declined by 86 percent since 1970—twice the rate experienced within terrestrial or marine ecosystems—and almost a third of freshwater fish species are now threatened with extinction.

Yet it’s a crisis that has received far less attention than other environmental emergencies—like deforestation or plastic pollution—despite human reliance on freshwater systems for drinking water, food, and sanitation. As for river protection, it has long been seen as part of terrestrial protection; protect the land and you’ll protect the river that runs through it, the thinking has been, even though overwhelming evidence suggests that such an approach generally does not work. 

But now there are signs of change, with freshwater issues becoming more prominently featured on the conservation agenda. While a steady release of studies continue to expose the sorry state of affairs, the ecological and economic benefits of maintaining healthy rivers are increasingly clear, scientists say, as are the solutions for how to do it. They warn, however, that things need to move fast if we are going to save ecosystems crucial to the survival of both animals and humans.

“Humanity is intimately tied to the health of freshwater ecosystems,” says Kathy Hughes, a freshwater specialist with the World Wildlife Fund in the United Kingdom, and the lead author of the new report. “Freshwater biodiversity is our canary in the mine and if freshwater ecosystems can no longer support thriving biodiversity, then it’s a sure sign that they’re not good for humanity either.”

Year of the river

Historically, protected areas have been designed for terrestrial ecosystems and their species, with little, if any, consideration given to the freshwater habitats in them. This is in part because of the complexity of rivers, which can flow into and out of protected or managed areas, through different landscapes and sometimes even countries.

“It’s a lot easier to draw a line around a piece of land or in the ocean than it is to do it for a river,” says John Zablocki, a biodiversity expert with the Nature Conservancy who spearheads an international network of freshwater scientists devising new ways of thinking about river protection.

He points out that rivers that run through protected land areas are often not protected from upstream impacts, something that was starkly illustrated in a study published in Conservation Letters last year. It showed that there are 1,249 large dams located inside protected areas, and more than 500 dams planned or under construction within protected areas worldwide.

“We have to get away from thinking about land first and rivers second,” says Zablocki, whose organization is working with multiple municipalities in the Western Balkan nation of Montenegro, where the government recently designated the lower reaches of the highly biodiverse Zeta River as a nature park. 

Another movement is focused on providing legal protection for rivers. In 2017, New Zealand became the first country to grant a specific river legal rights the same as those of humans, meaning that in a court of law, they’re treated like living entities. Since then, Bangladesh has done the same with all of its rivers, while the city of Toledo, Ohio, passed what’s known as the Lake Erie Bill of Rights to protect its shores, making it one of several cities in the United States to pass legislation recognizing the rights of nature.

“We’re going to need a multi-tiered approach to keep rivers healthy and free-flowing,” says Michele Thieme, the lead freshwater scientist at the World Wildlife Fund in the United States. “There’s not going to be one silver bullet.”

With freshwater scientists hoping that 2021 could be the year of the river, some influential conservationists who have previously not focused on freshwater issues may be taking a keener interest, including the Campaign for Nature, the $1 billion initiative funded by Switzerland’s Wyss Foundation and supported by the National Geographic Society, which aims to conserve 30 percent of the planet in a natural state by 2030.

The campaign specifically targets lands and oceans, without mentioning rivers. But that could soon be changing, according to its director, Brian O’Donnell. “All the reports describing the freshwater biodiversity crisis have provided a wake-up call for us and made it clear that explicit representation of freshwater areas needs to be part of the equation going forward,” O’Donnell says.

Devastating loss

While fresh water makes up less than one percent of Earth’s flowing water, it is home to 10 percent of all known species, including a third of all vertebrates.

Among the more unusual freshwater varieties are Africa’s elephant fishes, which communicate through electrical signals, and the Amazon’s spraying characins, which lay their eggs on land. Freshwater systems are also home to around 270 species of turtles, more than 1,300 species of crabs, and around 5,700 species of dragonflies.