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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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.


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Related conservation news from the field

Pope Francis reminds us: Protect our home

Oct 19, 2020, 09:45 AM by User Not Found
Could the Pope’s new environmental encyclical mark a turning point in how we care for the Earth?

Anyone who takes a breath, drinks a drop of water or eats a bite of food, and wonders where all this nourishment comes from, understands that every single one of us depends upon nature for our lives.

Unfortunately, since the Industrial Revolution, the awareness of this direct connection has become fainter and often ignored outright. Our market-based system glorifies economic activity or GDP, where cost-benefit analyses too often override the core values that shape our moral behavior. This is especially true regarding our relationship with nature. We have lost sight of her value to all of us.  There has been a breach of faith.

For years I have believed that we need an 11th Commandment: Thou shalt cherish the Earth. And we have needed a respected, unifying voice to carry this message to all people.

Today, Pope Francis is this voice, and this is the message he has sent the world.

And when the leader who guides 1.1 billion people in their faith makes such a clear call to protect our planet, I can’t help but wonder: Could this mark a turning point in how we care for our common home?

Faith can be a powerful force for environmental change, as one recent example shows.

In the high mountains just outside Mexico City are pine forests and bunchgrass meadows, part of a watershed that provides water for the 23 million people living in this massive metropolitan area. These pines and meadows make up an area called the “Bosque de Agua,” or Water Forest.

In Cuernavaca, a city in the Bosque de Agua’s watershed, a stream running through the town became polluted by people throwing trash down the sides of its steep ravine. The town’s mayor tried an innovative strategy to end it: Local artists created sculptures of the Virgin of Guadalupe and installed them throughout the ravine. Almost overnight, people stopped dumping garbage. Blessed by association with the community’s faith, a waste-strewn ravine turned into an urban oasis.

Pope Francis’ encyclical, published this week, is a reminder to all Catholics, and to all people, that we cannot care for each other without caring for our common home, the Earth. Nature provides our most fundamental needs — fresh water, nourishing food, clean air. There is a saying that nature is the treasury of the poor. The truth is that nature is the treasury of us all.

For the past several years, a group of like-minded people have focused on persuading governments and businesses to consider the economic value of nature in national accounts and corporate balance sheets. This is an important argument, and it helps to create an understanding of why we need to manage and invest in protecting nature.

But, the simple and powerful truth is that nature’s value goes way beyond GDP. Life begins with her. And, as the Pope has so powerfully communicated, it will end without her.


Peter Seligmann is the chairman and former CEO of Conservation International. 

Cover image: Pope Francis during a 2014 visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. (© European Union 2014 – European Parliament)


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