Young boy fishing in Tonle Sap at sunset.

Freshwater Ecosystems

The areas on which humanity depends for its most precious resource are under increasing pressure.


Fresh water is the lifeblood of our planet, and freshwater ecosystems connect people with the resources they need to thrive. But when rivers, lakes and wetlands are degraded, their ability to provide reliable supplies of clean water — and to support the species on which millions of people depend — is threatened.

The planet’s freshwater ecosystems are in crisis: Research found that populations of monitored freshwater species have fallen by 84 percent and nearly one-third of wetland ecosystems have been lost since 1970 due to human activities that degrade habitats and decrease water quality.

But despite their vital contributions to humans and biodiversity, freshwater ecosystems receive only a small percentage of the funding dedicated to nature conservation, explained Robin Abell, a co-author of a recent review of these findings published in the journal Science, who leads Conservation International’s freshwater work.

“Freshwater ecosystems connect headwaters with oceans, land with water and people with the resources they need to thrive,” Abell said. “However, they have historically been ignored during the development of conservation initiatives such as protected areas and other management interventions.”

“Freshwater and terrestrial conservation need to go hand-in-hand to receive the full suite of benefits that nature can provide,” she said. “This will require strong policy that recognizes the connections between terrestrial and freshwater systems and that treats those systems as equal in importance.”


What Are the Issues?

more demand than supply
Insufficient supply

Demand for fresh water is outstripping supply. Many water systems around the world are currently overtaxed, and some are already very close to running dry: The city of Cape Town, South Africa barely averted "Day Zero," when the city's taps were expected to be turned off. According to one estimate, by 2030 our need for water will be 40 percent greater than our reliable water supplies.

of wastewater goes untreated

Agriculture, industrial processes, untreated waste and degraded lands are leading causes of pollution in freshwater systems. Poor water quality threatens freshwater species, affects fisheries all the way to coasts, increases water treatment costs and poses risks to human health.

1 billion
facing water scarcity

Around the world, climate change is already affecting freshwater systems, as droughts and floods occur with greater frequency and intensity. Degraded ecosystems — and the species that live in them — are less resilient to these climate impacts, and communities that depend on the services provided by healthy freshwater ecosystems are becoming increasingly vulnerable.

Our Solutions

We work to protect and restore the freshwater ecosystems around the world that supply critical services to the people who depend on them most. Grounded in sound science, our projects offer innovative solutions that can serve as models for conservation anywhere on Earth. Given the link between nature and human well-being, we build bridges between conservation and development, providing leaders at all levels with the information they need to understand the true value of nature’s benefits.


Featured Publications


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