Skip to content

Bringing freshwater research and policy out from ‘beneath the water’s surface’

December 2, 2021
Freshwater biodiversity declines are often hidden from public and policy view. Image: Solvin Zankl

Global freshwater biodiversity is in big trouble. The latest WWF Living Planet report suggests that freshwater populations across the world have declined by an average of 84% in the last 50 years. This alarming trend is due to multiple pressures on freshwater ecosystems including climate change, habitat loss, over-harvesting and water pollution. The report suggests that biodiversity loss is happening much faster in freshwaters than on land or in the oceans.

Despite this, freshwaters can be overlooked by environmental funding schemes. A recent report on European foundation funding suggests that inland waters accounted for only 1.75% of the €745 million approved for environmental work in 2018. It is common for freshwaters to be subsumed into terrestrial habitats in funding allocations, meaning their conservation and restoration is not adequately supported.

In recent years, we have covered a series of ambitious plans to halt freshwater biodiversity declines, including the Emergency Recovery Plan for Freshwater Biodiversity and Safeguarding Freshwater Life Beyond 2020. Earlier this year a major ‘horizon scanning’ paper highlighted twenty-five essential research questions to inform the protection and restoration of freshwater biodiversity. Across all these initiatives, what is clear is the pressing need to deepen our understanding of freshwater ecosystems and their threats, whilst also gaining widespread political and public support to help halt their global declines.

33% of aquatic insects are threatened with extinction. Image: Wolfram Graf / Astrid Schmidt-Kloiber

Today a team of researchers representing 90 global scientific institutions strengthen this movement through a new global agenda for freshwater biodiversity research. “Biodiversity loss in freshwater is a global crisis that is literally hidden beneath the water’s surface,” says project co-lead Professor Sonja Jähnig from the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB) and Humboldt University in Berlin. “At present, freshwater biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate. The data bear this out very clearly,” Professor Jähnig outlines.

“Despite the ongoing, unprecedented decline, international and intergovernmental science-policy platforms, funding agencies and major non-profit initiatives still fail to give freshwater biodiversity the priority it deserves,” continues project co-lead Dr Alain Maasri, also from IGB.

In a newly published open-access article in Ecology Letters, Jähnig, Maasri and a diverse team of global researchers identify 15 priority needs to improve freshwater research and support policy, conservation and restoration. These needs are grouped into five key research themes: data infrastructure, monitoring, ecology, management and social ecology (Figure 1). Across each theme the authors identify three types of challenge, relating to: knowledge gaps (A); insufficient communication (B); and inadequate policy responses (C).

Figure 1: The 15 priority needs for freshwater research identified by the new agenda. Image: Maasri et al (2021) CC-BY-NC 4.0

“The agenda is intended to provide the impetus for a stronger global commitment to research and conservation of freshwater biodiversity. However, concrete actions must always be developed at local, regional and national levels,” emphasises Professor Jähnig. “It‘s not about pointing fingers at policy makers or other stakeholders. It is up to all of us – including us researchers – to set priorities and work better together,” adds Dr Maasri.

The 15 priority needs, initiated at an Alliance for Freshwater Life workshop in November 2018, highlight the major gaps in existing freshwater knowledge, and the inadequate and unequal access to available datasets. They show the potential of new technologies such as automated image analysis and artificial intelligence in improving freshwater monitoring schemes, whilst also noting the importance of incorporating citizen science and indigenous knowledge in understanding freshwater systems.

The authors highlight the need to better understand the ecological relationships that determine how freshwater ecosystems function. This is important in guiding conservation and restoration management in response to multiple pressures, and in showing the importance of healthy ecosystems to people and policy-makers through concepts such as nature-based solutions.

Similarly, the research team outlines the need to design freshwater conservation strategies that consider the social, cultural and economic contexts in which they take place. Key to this process is improving public awareness of freshwater declines which largely take place “beneath the water’s surface” and embracing traditional and indigenous ecological knowledge. Further, the authors highlight the need to address trade-offs between ecological, economic and social priorities by engaging local communities, scientists and policy makers around freshwater systems.

”Above all, lakes, rivers, ponds and wetlands should be explicitly recognised as important habitats and ecosystems in their own right by policy makers and funding organisations, and in management and restoration programs,” Professor Jähnig concludes.


Maasri, A., Jähnig, S.C., Adamescu, M.C., Adrian, R., Baigun, C., Baird, D.J., et al. (2021). A global agenda for advancing freshwater biodiversity research. In: Ecology Letters, 00, 1–9. DOI: (Licence: CC-BY-NC 4.0)

Comments are closed.