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.

© Kristin Harrison & Jeremy Ginsberg


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.”


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Related conservation news from the field

In photos: From forest to mega-city, a river’s journey

Jan 23, 2020, 11:12 AM by User Not Found
An Indonesian river is transformed as it winds downstream.


Young girl enjoys the benefits of having clean water piped into her village from the nearby Gunung Gede-Pangrango National Park, Indonesia. (© Jessica Scranton)

A two-hour drive inland from the smog and chaotic congestion of Jakarta, Indonesia, takes you to a place that may as well be worlds away. But the forests of Gunung Gede-Pangrango National Park hold something that binds nature and city together: one of Java’s largest water reservoirs. In fact, more than 60 rivers flow from here to the outskirts of Jakarta and other parts of the island.

This water is sacred to those who live along the park’s edge and use the rivers for bathing, drinking, fishing and flooding their neon-green rice paddies to nurture their crops. It is an integral part of daily existence.


© Jessica Scranton


© Jessica Scranton

However, by the time the water has reached Jakarta it is a cesspool of toxic chemicals overflowing with trash, no longer safe for consumption. There, it creates a cycle of disease, infections and poor health for the impoverished families living along the city’s outlying riverbeds.

On a recent visit to Java to take photos for Conservation International (CI), I tried to document the close and complex relationship the communities of Gunung Gede-Pangrango National Park have to water — as well as its journey downstream.


© Jessica Scranton

The forest behind it all

CI has been working in in the park since 1998, starting with a conservation education program at Bodogol Conservation Education Center. In 2003, 10,000 hectares (almost 25,000 acres) of forest around the park needed to be restored. Until that point, there had been few laws regulating how locals and companies could use this forest, including the buffer zone of the national park — and in the aftermath of Indonesia’s 1998 economic crisis, the laws that did exist were often broken.

Many acres were cut for illegal farming and logging, leading to erosion, landslides and a drop in the water table that made it more difficult to access fresh water. Java’s beautiful wildlife and dense jungle started to disappear, prompting the state’s forestry department to expand the borders of Gunung Gede-Pangrango National Park.


© Jessica Scranton

In 2008, CI collaborated with local organizations and the park service to start the Green Wall project, a reforestation initiative aimed at protecting the water reservoir and restoring degraded forest around the national park. Since then, CI has planted more than 120,000 native tree seedlings to help prevent erosion, absorb carbon from the atmosphere and provide other benefits for nearby communities.

Little by little, the forest is being reclaimed, and the new tree life is helping balance the water table. New projects are taking off, such as CI’s construction of a pipeline that helps people access clean water from the source.


© Jessica Scranton


© Jessica Scranton

Before this, community members along the upper valley would spend five or six hours a day hiking down a steep trail to the river and back to fetch clean water. Now small white pipes carry the water miles from its source and distribute it into catchment tanks at community water stations, where people use it for bathing, cleaning vegetables, prayer and cooking. The water then filters into the rice paddies below. Thanks to this new pipeline, people are healthier and they have the freedom to pursue other economic ventures instead of spending their days finding water.


© Jessica Scranton


© Jessica Scranton

A different story downstream

However, as we followed the river just one mile outside the national forest, I saw it transform in front of my eyes. With limited trash-removal options and increasing use of disposable plastics, garbage is dumped directly into the riverbed.


© Jessica Scranton


© Jessica Scranton

Clean fresh water from the mountains is piped into rice paddies, where it accumulates chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This wastewater is then tapped for uses such as drinking water, laundry and local businesses like tilapia fisheries, which add more pollutants into the water in the form of fish feed and antibiotics. This water is then piped directly back into the river downstream.


© Jessica Scranton


© Jessica Scranton

Fortunately, awareness is growing; To date, there have been several initiatives in the region to limit the use of plastic, better manage waste and watershed health and support community action to clean the river. In addition, CI is trying to connect upstream communities with the local agricultural agency in order to counsel them on more sustainable land-use practices that can limit water contamination downstream.


© Jessica Scranton

To help urban residents access clean drinking water, the government gave several companies permission to bottle the water fresh from the source in the national park and distribute it in the cities of Jakarta, Bogor and Sukabumi. In return, those companies have to contribute to the protection of this forest that makes their business possible.


© Jessica Scranton

CI is working to educate everyone from local leaders to children about the importance of reforestation and the survival of this forest and water supply. So far, staff members have shared information about the importance of the forests through “mobile education units” that have visited more than 50,000 students living in three provinces around the park.

The problem is massive, but slowly people are coming around to the idea that protecting forests is one of the only ways to ensure a reliable water supply both now and into the future.


© Jessica Scranton

Jessica Scranton is a freelance photographer who has worked for magazines, designers, corporations, ad companies, nonprofits and philanthropists. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.

Jessica Scranton at work near Gunung Gede-Pangrango National Park. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Scranton)

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