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Safeguarding freshwater life beyond 2020: 14 recommendations for environmental policy

October 15, 2020
A headwater stream in the Austrian Alps. Image: Theo Crazzolara | Flickr Creative Commons

Freshwater biodiversity is in a critical state of decline across the world, as startlingly shown in the most recent WWF Living Planet report. This year, updates to two international policy frameworks which could have significant influence on the future of freshwater life – the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the European Union (EU) Biodiversity Strategy – are being prepared. How can we ensure that global freshwater biodiversity is properly valued and protected by these frameworks over coming decades?

An international research team led by Dr. Sonja Jähnig at the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB) in Germany have published a journal paper containing 14 key recommendations for the global protection of freshwater biodiversity. Their aim is to encourage decision makers to ensure that both the post-2020 CBD Global Biodiversity Framework and the post-2020 EU Biodiversity Strategy better account for freshwater ecosystems.

“This is an important moment to bring scientific knowledge into the process,” says Dr. Jähnig. “Political strategies and decisions must emphasise the unique ecology of freshwater life and the many threats to it. In previous regulations, the protection of freshwaters has often been treated in an inferior manner. Inland waters have been included within land regulations – because they are not marine – or with seas and oceans – because they are aquatic. It is time that freshwater biodiversity is recognised in its own right – the latest Living Planet Report shows that the loss of freshwater populations is the most dramatic – a loss of 84 percent between 1970 and 2016,” Dr. Jähnig states.

The new open-access paper – published in Conservation Letters – draws on the expertise and experience of its 21 authors, many of whom have been involved in major freshwater research projects such as MARS and BioFresh in recent years. Their collaboration was initiated at the ALTER-Net / Eklipse conference in Ghent in July 2019, which was hosted to discuss EU biodiversity strategy post-2020.

As co-author Dr. Astrid Schmidt-Kloiber explains, this is a crucial time for environmental policy and conservation, “The year 2020 marks the end of the UN biodiversity decade. In the last 10 years major efforts have been undertaken to save the world’s biodiversity, but none of the Aichi Targets has been met so far. Now the Convention on Biological Diversity and the EU Biodiversity Strategy need to be prepared and adapted for the next 10 years and we wanted to make a contribution that exclusively deals with the biodiversity of freshwaters, which are among the most threatened ecosystems on earth.”

The authors’ 14 recommendations are split into four categories which encompass visioning, planning, monitoring and practice for freshwater conservation.

The 14 recommendations for freshwaters in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. Image: van Rees et al (2020)

Visions and targets for freshwater conservation

The article’s first recommendation is also its most radical and urgent: that freshwaters should be considered a true ecological ‘third realm’ that deserves legal and scientific prominence in biodiversity frameworks and strategies. Freshwaters can sometimes ‘slip between the gaps’ of terrestrial and marine policies, which means that their unique threats, valuable ecosystem services and distinctive ecology are not properly accounted for and protected.

Lead author Dr. Charles van Rees explains, “We want to communicate the uniqueness of freshwater ecosystems and biodiversity, how they cannot be managed similarly to terrestrial or marine systems, how they are intertwined with human health and societal water security, and how they are more intensely threatened than other realms of biodiversity.” 

As Dr. van Rees notes, the authors recommend that freshwater ecosystems should be recognised and framed as life-supporting systems that provide vital functions to humans and non-humans alike. The processes that shape freshwater systems – and the services they provide – often take place across wide geographical scales and long timescales, and ensuring that these systems retain connectivity through policy and management is another of the authors’ recommendations. This has implications for how different environmental policies are implemented, as co-author Dr. Gregor Kalinkat outlines, “Better integration of water-related regulations like the Water Framework Directive and the EU Biodiversity Strategy is a key goal that needs to be achieved.”

A history of global environmental policies which influence freshwater conservation. Image: van Rees et al (2020)

Creating the conditions for effective freshwater conservation

Linked to their previous recommendation, the authors state that freshwater ecosystems should be managed across their whole catchment, regardless of political boundaries. Freshwaters don’t function in isolation from land, air and sea, but instead are in a constant state of environmental exchange and dynamism, which can lead to complex sets of human pressures. Managing freshwaters at ‘the catchment scale’ is widely agreed to be the most effective way to address these dynamics. This links to another of the author’s recommendations: to incorporate insights from cutting-edge ecological systems theory around complexity, non-linearity and feedback loops.

The authors highlight that whilst the designation of new protected areas can be politically and economically challenging, initiatives such as wetland restoration have the potential to provide simultaneous climate and conservation benefits. They also discuss how large and ‘charismatic’ freshwater species have the potential to act as valuable ‘flagships’ in raising public awareness of conservation initiatives. The environmental impacts of invasive freshwater species continues to grow as an issue, and the authors recommend that regulatory frameworks should better account for their monitoring, assessment and management.

Monitoring and planning for the future

In planning for how freshwaters are best studied in support of environmental policy, the authors make three recommendations around biodiversity monitoring and data. First, they state that freshwater monitoring programmes should be better coordinated and funded at national and global scales. Second, they advocate for making large freshwater datasets open-access and widely available – as is already happening through the Freshwater Information Platform – as a means of supporting collaborative research across large geographical areas.

Third, they suggest that future biodiversity monitoring schemes should take advantage of novel research methods and data sources in order to better account for underrepresented – but ecologically crucial – groups like parasites, fungi, and bacteria. They highlight an emerging toolkit of monitoring methods, including environmental DNA, remotely sensed earth observations, culturomics and citizen science as valuable avenues for research.

Dr Astrid Schmidt-Kloiber says, “I think that we need Europe-wide specific harmonised freshwater monitoring programmes to create a reliable baseline about the current state of freshwater biodiversity and to help the Red Listing process. Though the Water Framework Directive has already created a lot of valuable data, it has to be emphasised that WFD monitoring captures only a subset of the freshwater biota, as it is not specifically meant to record, for example, the total species diversity. This is directly related to better access to existing and mobilisation of new biodiversity data, which also still would need major improvements.”

In using this data to shape conservation practice, the authors recommend that future freshwater policies should encourage catchment management which balances both human and wildlife water needs. Freshwater ecosystems are often subject to numerous competing demands on the resources they provide, and the authors highlight the range of new decision-support tools which can help policy makers navigate their complexity.

Synergies between the 14 recommendations and the 6 ‘bending the curve of freshwater decline’ priority actions outlined by David Tickner and colleagues (2020). Filled circles indicate parallel coverage; open circles denote where recommendations provide a means of implementation for priority actions. Image: van Rees et al (2020)

Cross-cutting issues for freshwater conservation

The final two recommendations in the paper relate to cross-cutting issues for freshwater management. First, the authors state that freshwater biodiversity species extinction risk listing and protections should be better informed by global assessments. They highlight how a relatively small proportion of freshwater species classified as threatened by the IUCN Red List are adequately protected by EU biodiversity policies.

Second, they suggest that future environmental policies should support the use of Integrated Water Resources Management as a means of sustainably managing freshwater systems, particularly across administrative and political boundaries. They describe how key contemporary issues surrounding multiple stressors and environmental flows are being managed through IWRM approaches.

Summing up and looking forward

The paper provides a succinct and powerful statement in support of better freshwater conservation and management, and is informed by cutting-edge research and theory in the field. “We hope that this paper will highlight under-recognised research on freshwater ecology and conservation and bring the freshwater biodiversity crisis to the forefront,” says Dr. Charles van Rees. “More than raising the alarm, though, we hope to provide more actionable, practicable guidelines and suggestions for how governments can support the research and management needed to address this crisis. This is a major step toward what David Tickner and colleagues recently called ‘bending the curve’ for freshwater biodiversity,” Dr. van Rees explains. 

“Through the joint effects of climate change, overexploitation, pollution, species introduction, and many other factors, we are losing biodiversity at an alarming rate, and at a global scale,” adds co-author Dr. Stephen Thackeray. “These losses are especially pronounced in freshwater habitats, and yet the plight of freshwater species specifically does not always get the public and policy attention that it deserves. It is clear that we need to take action to protect our freshwater wildlife, and it is our hope that our recommendations can help guide decision making and conservation for these imperilled ecosystems,” Dr. Thackeray suggests.

“Even if results of international conservation efforts have been very sobering so far – we scientists will continue to contribute our expertise to highlight the dramatic loss of freshwater biodiversity and help to mitigate and stop it. The recommendations formulated can help to improve the political framework for the protection of aquatic biodiversity,” Dr. Sonja Jähnig concludes.


van Rees, CB, Waylen, KA, Schmidt‐Kloiber, A, et al. Safeguarding freshwater life beyond 2020: Recommendations for the new global biodiversity framework from the European experience. Conservation Letters. 2020; e12771.

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