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The Alliance for Freshwater Life is launched

August 31, 2018
7_Vjosa upstream meander_(c) LukasTB

The Vjosa river and floodplain in Albania: one of the last intact large river systems in Europe, currently threatened by proposed dam construction projects. Image: Lukas Thuile Bistarelli

A new global network aiming to halt and reverse the ongoing freshwater biodiversity loss crisis launched last Sunday at the World Water Week conference in Stockholm. The Alliance for Freshwater Life is an interdisciplinary network of scientists, conservation professionals, educators, policy experts, creative practitioners, and citizens working to improve the conservation and sustainable use of freshwater ecosystems and biodiversity.

Freshwaters are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, many supporting populations of rare and endemic species. However, freshwaters are also impacted by multiple pressures, many of which stem from human activities. Freshwater ecosystems are a fundamental resource for human life, providing water, food, energy and natural materials. However, growing pressures such as the pollution, over-abstraction, fragmentation and alteration of water bodies, and the spread of invasive species, habitat loss and alteration – all shadowed by the emerging effects of global climate change – are placing enormous stress on freshwater life.

As a result, freshwater vertebrate populations have declined by more than 80% over the past 50 yearsa rate of decline twice that recorded for either marine or terrestrial systems – according to a 2016 World Wide Fund for Nature report. Approximately one-third of the 28,000 freshwater species assessed for the IUCN Red List is threatened with extinction. An estimated threequarters of the world’s inland natural wetlands were lost during the 20th century, according to a 2014 study by Nick Davidson. Staggeringly, a 2017 World Economic Forum report ranks freshwater supply as third in a list of the top10 global risks, behind weapons of mass destruction and extreme weather events. It is such symptoms of a global freshwater biodiversity crisis that the Alliance for Freshwater Life has been formed to address.


Delegates at World Water Week 2018 in Stockholm. Image: Thomas Henriksson / SIWI

Reflecting on the Stockholm launch, Alliance co-chair William Darwall says, “The showcase to launch our new initiative was well attended despite our 9am Sunday morning time-slot, receiving extensive endorsement and interest from a wide range of organisations present. We received many excellent ideas during the discussions session to help guide our next steps in taking the initiative forwards. We thank all those who attended and for their ideas and support.”

Darwall – Head of the Freshwater Biodiversity Unit at the IUCN Global Species Programme – continues, “The importance of this new initiative was confirmed through much of the dialogue during the week where the need for better representation of freshwater life in water policy and conservation action were abundantly clear. The event was supported by the publication of our paper in Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems in the previous week, which has already received tremendous interest through social media.”


The newly published paper – available here – is a manifesto for positive action for freshwater biodiversity conservation and policy. It outlines the Alliance’s vision of a global collaboration between national and international organisations and individuals which brings together expertise on education, outreach, research, conservation, and policy-making for the sustainable management of freshwater biodiversity.

The authors identify two key drivers of the ongoing crisis of freshwater biodiversity loss. First, they highlight the significant growth in global demand for water resources over the last century, leading to widespread freshwater habitat loss and degradation, water pollution and over-abstraction, and considerable alterations to the flow and course of many rivers and streams. The authors cite studies suggesting that global demands for drinking water, hydropower and agriculture will increase significantly in coming decades.

Second, the authors argue that existing environmental policies do not adequately protect freshwater biodiversity and ecosystems. They state that the human valuation and usefulness of freshwaters is often foregrounded in environmental policy, at the detriment of non-human life. This, they suggest, often leads to “the unnecessary and often inadvertent sacrifice of freshwater life as collateral damage in global development, which can lead to the destruction of the very ecosystems required to support these same objectives.” In short, the paper argues that whilst human pressures on freshwaters continue to increase and interact, existing environmental policies don’t adequately address their impacts.


Pacific salmon migrating upstream. Salmon populations are threatened by dam construction, mining, over-fishing and climate change. Image: Jason Ching / World Fish Migration Day

In response, the paper outlines five key areas of work to be undertaken by the Alliance to raise the public and political profile of freshwater issues. More research is needed to understand the distribution and status of freshwater biodiversity and ecosystems globally, in order to design effective conservation and restoration initiatives. Freshwater biodiversity data should be better synthesised and made accessible to conservation practitioners.

The core focus of the Alliance is to develop a global network and community of practice for freshwater biodiversity conservation, which fosters collaborations to design and implement largescale conservation actions. There is relatively low public awareness of the threats to freshwater ecosystems, and resulting biodiversity loss (a trend which has underpinned the work of this blog over the last eight years), and the Alliance plan to host a range of education and outreach activities to address this shortfall. Finally, the Alliance is designed to provide a voice for freshwater life in global policy making, and its members plan to engage with policy makers both on the implementation of existing policies, and the development of new ones. The aim here is to place freshwater species and their ecosystems on the global agenda as key targets for conservation action.


Wetlands in the Kemeri National Park, Latvia. Around threequarters of the world’s inland natural wetlands were lost during the 20th century, according to a recent study. Image: Dmitrijs Kuzmins, CC BY 3.0

Darwall outlines the way forward for the Alliance, “The next steps are to fully develop and formalise the strategic plan and to obtain setup funding for the next two-year period during which time we will expand our membership to be globally representative, develop new partnerships, and start work to raise public awareness of the crisis facing our freshwater life.”

Darwall continues, “This exciting new initiative creates an opportunity to step up actions to ensure this growing coalition of organisations and individuals provides the critical mass required for the effective representation of freshwater biodiversity at policy meetings; to develop solutions balancing the needs of development and conservation; and better convey the important role freshwater ecosystems play in human well‐being. Through this united effort we hope to reverse this tide of loss and decline in freshwater biodiversity.

“In the context of the current call for a Paris-style agreement to save life on Earth, calling for a massive increase in our efforts save life on Earth which is in crisis, we have formed the Alliance for Freshwater Life as an endeavour specifically focused on saving freshwater biodiversity, which remains the least poorly appreciated, least funded, and most heavily threatened and declining of all biodiversity, and risks being largely absent from future global agreements – despite contributing a disproportionate amount to the global needs of humans.”


The World Water Week Showcase was convened by Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB), IHE Delft, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Conservation International (CI), Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA), National Great Rivers Research and Education Center (NGRREC). The Showcase was sponsored by Leibniz IGB. Outreach and social media development was funded by NGRREC.


Read more:

Alliance for Freshwater Life website

Darwall, W et al (2018) “The Alliance for Freshwater Life: A global call to unite efforts for freshwater biodiversity science and conservation”, Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, (open-access)

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