Imagine being the first to see an animal or plant no one else has ever seen before. For field biologists, it can be the biggest rush of their career. Now, imagine discovering an animal and then see it become extinct. For CI scientist Michael Smith, that has happened eight times with freshwater species he discovered.
Smith points out that today’s global freshwater crisis extends well beyond fish to billions of people around the world. “More then a billion people lack access to safe drinking water,” Smith says. At the same time, freshwater species habitats worldwide are losing more species faster than any others.
Covering less than 1 percent of the earth’s surface, freshwater harbors 30 percent of all vertebrates. The myriad threats to freshwater species include climate change, over-harvesting, invasive species, pollution and development.
These same threats cause enormous misery among people who rely upon freshwater habitats as a source of drinking water, food and sanitation.
“In the poorest countries, one out of five children dies from a preventable, water-related disease. Historically, groups that work on human water issues have seen conservation as competing for freshwater supplies to protect species,” Smith says.
“Yet conserving water for species also conserves water for people.” Conservation International (CI) experts will focus on freshwater and other pressing issues at the 9th Annual National Conference on Science, Policy and Environment, in Washington, DC, December 8-10. This year entitled “Biodiversity in a Rapidly Changing World,” the conference organized by the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) brings together some 1,000 scientists, conservationists and policymakers to develop a strategy to guide the new US Administration and others working to conserve biodiversity globally.
Topics ranging from agricultural landscapes and natural diversity to the political, economic and ethical contexts of biodiversity conservation pack the agenda. The concurrent sessions will develop recommendations to provide an approach for biodiversity management and conservation in the 21st century.
CI’s Smith and Larry Gorenflo of the University of Pennsylvania are leading a session with experts from the conservation and human development communities to identify how actions to conserve freshwater species are often identical to those to secure safe water supplies for people. They are also organizing a panel to determine actions needed to avert major projected extinctions in freshwater ecosystems.
Mohamed Bakarr, head of CI’s Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, will explore how to mainstream biodiversity conservation into the development agenda for Africa and CI scientist Don Church is among experts who will develop recommendations for rapid action to forestall unprecedented extinctions of amphibians around the world.
"Nature's assets – ecosystems and species – remain the foundation for well-being of all Africans. More than ever, the need to harness ecosystem services without undermining nature must be at the heart of decision-making for development," says Bakarr, who is on a panel including officials from the US Agency for International Development, the US Environmental Protection Agency and other members of the Africa Biodiversity Collaborative Group.
On December 9, CI CEO Peter Seligmann will join leaders from the environment and policy arenas to agree upon final recommendations from the conference.
“We expect that this will be the largest gathering of scientists and decision makers on this topic since the 1986 National Forum on Biodiversity. While that event brought public attention to the biodiversity crisis, it has only worsened since then. We aim to regain national focus of the importance of biodiversity to everyone’s quality of life, and develop new approaches to understand and protect life’s richness in this rapidly changing world,” says NCSE Conference Chair David Blockstein.