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World Water Day 2011: “Why should we care about freshwater biodiversity?”

March 22, 2011

Today is World Water Day, but the event’s publicity makes no mention of the importance of the myriad life forms that inhabit our freshwaters in helping provide ecosystem services such as clean water provision to humans.

Why is this?  Is the importance of freshwater biodiversity in providing these services under-represented?  Or is it that scientists don’t yet fully understand the relationship between freshwater biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and the services (such as clean water) an ecosystem provides to humans?

Initiated by the UN, this year’s World Water Day theme is “Water and Urbanisation”, intended to “focus international attention on the challenges and opportunities of urban water and sanitation management”. You can find more information about the day and useful resources at the World Water Day site.

In this context, and drawing on the results from the ‘Top questions for freshwater biodiversity” session at the BioFresh Montserrat conference in February, how do we provide a convincing answer to the question:

“Why should we care about freshwater biodiversity?”

We at BioFresh suggest that freshwater biodiversity has a role in underpinning and sustaining resilient and healthy ecosystems, which can provide natural water purification with less need for human intervention.  The functioning of healthy natural ecosystems provides a range of ecosystem services which benefit humans in four broad ways:

  • Provisioning – e.g. the provision of clean water
  • Regulating – e.g. the regulation of climatic systems
  • Supporting -e.g. supporting nutrient cycles
  • Cultural – e.g. the recreational or spiritual benefits we gain from ecosystems

The role of freshwater biodiversity in underpinning ecosystem function – and thus providing services like clean water – is complex and often unresolved.  As such, whilst freshwater ecosystem services such as clean water provision are crucial, their global provision has an uncertain future.  Further research into the relationships between freshwater biodiversity and ecosystem function is needed.  The uncertainties in the science – an area that the BioFresh project seeks to address – means  a precautionary approach to freshwater biodiversity management should be taken to help safeguard ecosystem services such as clean water provision in the future.

World Water Day is clearly a highly important and successful event which globally raises the issue of clean water provision.  However,  there are areas in the World Water Day literature where we could call for an increased awareness and discussion of the importance of freshwater biodiversity.  One of the five key themes for World Water Day is “Environmental Impact and Climate Change”, which states:

Impacts on the environment from climate change, conflicts and natural disasters pose huge challenges for urban water and waste management”.

And outlines that:

“Cities depend on resources drawn from the natural environment and will bear the impact of extreme climatic events. Ensuring that the environment has the capacity to sustain itself is a precondition for human survival.”

In this context, we’d suggest that  freshwater biodiversity is crucial, yet often overlooked or underrepresented, in underpinning and sustaining many of the ecosystem services which are a “precondition for human survival”.

We are still looking to formulate a concrete answer (or more likely, set of suggestions) to the important question “Why should we care about freshwater biodiversity?”.  Perhaps it is necessary to complement advances in freshwater science with a better understanding of why we should look to conserve freshwater ecosystems.

Whether in the context of World Water Day or not, this is an ongoing question that we’re looking to address, and your suggestions and comments are of real interest to us.

Leave a comment below to add your voice to the discussion.

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