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Maps in Action: Freshwater Ecoregions of the World

May 13, 2014

A fundamental task of conservation science is to create planning frameworks that simultaneously render important attributes of nature visible, create the imperative for strategic action, and support the implementation of conservation policy instruments. This map from the Global Freshwater Biodiversity Atlas exemplifies one way this task is realised in practice.

In response to the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity substantial funds were committed to the conservation of biodiversity internationally. Two of the world’s leading conservation Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) joined forces to create a global ecoregional planning framework. This set broad scale spatial priorities to guide the field programmes of their organisations as well as others, and to support biodiversity conservation investment decisions by international donors. There are now three dedicated ecoregion ‘maps’: covering terrestrial (2001), marine (2007) and freshwater (2008). Together these maps present regional scale ecosystems at a global level.

The Freshwater Ecoregions of the World (FEOW) map took 10 years to complete and involved coordinating contributions of over 100 scientists worldwide. Co-lead Robin Abell described how its production involved overcoming the challenge of poor species data in regions such as Southeast Asia and much of Africa, pushing taxonomic experts to make their best estimations of where they would expect to find different species and species groups. According to Ms. Abell, “one of the key conceptual challenges was how to align biogeographic patterns of freshwater biodiversity with river basins. River basins are the key unit of freshwater ecosystem policy and management.” Whilst basin topography is a critical factor influencing the patterns of freshwater species distributions, it is not the only one. In many cases it was not possible to align biography and basin (geo-morphology) and biographical consideration took precedent. The down side of emphasizing biogeography is that the species lists compiled for each ecoregion are sometimes not of direct use to managers focused on a particular river basin. The up-side is that it brings freshwater datasets into the sub-discipline of conservation biogeography – the application of biogeographical principles, theories, and analyses, being those concerned with the distributional dynamics of taxa individually and collectively, to problems concerning the conservation of biodiversity.

None-the-less, in 2006 Brazil incorporated freshwater ecoregions as planning units into their National Water Resources Plan – the first such plan for any South American country. This assures that aquatic biodiversity management becomes a strategic consideration for water resource management alongside traditional priorities of hydro-power, navigation, irrigation drinking water and sanitation.

Confluence of the Iguazu and Parana rivers. On the left is Paraguay, on the right Brazil, taken from Argentina  Phillip Capper, Wikimedia Commons

Confluence of the Iguazu and Parana rivers. On the left is Paraguay, on the right Brazil, taken from Argentina Phillip Capper, Wikimedia Commons


Commenting at the time Glauco Freitas, the Nature Conservancy’s Great River Partnership (GRP) manager for the Paraguay-Paraná watershed, described how “from the beginning of our conversations with the Brazilian government about their freshwater management plan, they have been cognizant of the importance of protecting Brazil’s waters not only for the sake of their extraordinary aquatic life, but also to protect sources of water for communities. GRP actions will now be closely linked with the Freshwater Management Plan.” However, in the view of Ms. Abell the real policy impact of the Freshwater Ecoregions map is more fundamental. She describes how “15-20 years ago many in the conservation community weren’t talking about freshwaters. The discussions were either about terrestrial or marine, or about the biodiversity of regions such as Amazonia. The freshwater ecoregion project, along with that of other groups such as the IUCN Freshwater Unit, opened conversations about freshwater biodiversity and its conservation.” These had the effect of “drawing attention to freshwater as a domain of conservation in its own right”. In short, freshwater ecoregions are contributing to a shift in how we frame global biodiversity at the most basic level – from terrestrial & marine, to terrestrial, freshwater & marine.

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