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We all need freshwater biodiversity

February 10, 2023
Fishers on the Orinoco River, Colombia. Freshwaters across the world support human lives in diverse and important ways. Image: WWF

We are in a crucial ‘window’ of time to protect and restore global freshwater biodiversity, according to a major new journal article. The authors – a group of scientists from across the world – write that there is growing public and political recognition of the need to ‘mainstream’ biodiversity conservation across all areas of everyday life.

Writing in the WIRES Water journal, the authors highlight the vital roles that freshwater biodiversity plays in supporting human lives: from food and materials; to cultural and recreation; and climate regulation to water purification. As a result, conserving and restoring freshwater habitats offers a path towards achieving what the UN term the ‘future we want’: a more sustainable future for people and nature.

Reflecting on the opportunities offered by the recent IPBES and UNFCCC biodiversity and climate policy conferences, the authors identify the critical ecosystem services which depend on freshwater biodiversity. Resulting from collaborations between scientists across the world, the paper highlights the diverse ways in which ‘people need freshwater biodiversity’.

“Our author team came together across disciplines, career stage, and geography because we were all in need of a clear, simple resource that demonstrated why freshwater biodiversity is so important for people,” explains lead author Dr. Abigail Lynch from the US Geological Survey.  “In a series of coordinated, structured, rich discussions, we distilled down an enormous list to the nine key ecosystem services and functions in the manuscript.”

The paper highlights a varied set of global examples of ecosystem services across material, non-material and regulating categories. The authors focus on indigenous freshwater biodiversity, that is, the species which are native to the habitats in which they are found. They argue that whilst freshwater conservation, human livelihoods and sustainable development are closely linked, there is still need to mainstream freshwater biodiversity in international policy and water management.

“Some of these services are very tangible, like fish or plants used as food or swimming in a pristine lake for recreation,” says lead author Prof. Sonja Jähnig from Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Germany. “Others are hidden below the surface as they are run by microorganisms too small to be seen such as water purification or might only be important in the future, for example genetic resources.”

Freshwater species are some of the most fascinating creatures on Earth and they play vital roles in supporting human livelihoods. Image: WWF

The paper takes us on a tour of the diverse ways that freshwater biodiversity helps support human lives across the world. Materially, it explores the food fisheries of the Lower Mekong River Basin, the health benefits of frog species in the Hindu-Kush region, and the products – including fish skin shoes and notebooks – made from freshwater biodiversity across the Amazon basin. Non-materially, it documents the importance of freshwater crayfish in European culture, the value of dragonflies in environmental education in South Africa, and the varied recreational activities supported by the North American Great Lakes.

Freshwater biodiversity is also vital in regulating many of the environmental processes that support humans. The paper highlights the value of catchment integrity in the un-fragmented Parana-Paraguay corridor, the climate regulation provided by riparian regrowth in Southwestern Australia, and the water purification and nutrient cycling processes supported by wetland ecosystems in Uganda.

This global tour of freshwater biodiversity focuses attention on local, site-specific interactions between people and nature, whilst drawing out broader-scale themes about the value of freshwater life. As a result, the paper serves as a timely and convincing reminder to policy makers of the pressing need to conserve and restore freshwater ecosystems in the face of growing human pressures and climatic breakdown.

“We need a broader understanding that we are critically dependent on important ecosystem provided by biodiversity in freshwater ecosystems,” continues co-author Dr. Dave Tickner from WWF UK. “We urgently need to slow down the loss of biodiversity.”

“Freshwaters have been managed primarily as an important resource rather than as the special and sensitive habitat for an extraordinary variety of organisms that provide all these functions,” concludes Dr. Abigail Lynch. “Policymakers can integrate biodiversity conservation more fully into water management.”

The nine key things we need from freshwater biodiversity 

Food: Although we usually think of fish when we think of food from freshwater, the list is large and ranges from animals to plants to microorganisms.

Other animal and plant products: Materials from freshwater are used to make utilitarian and ornamental items, such as clothes made from fish leather, nail files from fish scales and scissors from piranha teeth. Aquatic plants are used as building materials and furniture.

Health and genetic resources: Algae, aquatic plants and animal products – from collagens from fish to secretion products from frog skin – are used in medicine and pharmacology.

Recreational opportunities: The recreational activities enabled by freshwater biodiversity are considered cultural services. Swimming and boating take place where the water quality is considered good. This is directly related to the living organisms in the water body, which can prevent algal blooms, for example.

Importance for culture, religion and spirituality: Almost all cultures around large lakes or rivers have rituals and traditions linked to the creatures who live there.

Opportunities for education and technological advancement: From formal curricula in primary schools to targeted extracurricular activities for youth – education schemes help to build connections and foster a lifelong commitment to freshwater conservation and responsible stewardship.

Climate regulation: Freshwater ecosystems are critical for the storage and sequestration of carbon and methane.

Catchment integrity: Riparian and aquatic plants reduce water velocity, improve bank stability, retain sediments, and filter nutrients and pollutants.

Self-purification of water and nutrient cycles: Billions of microorganisms, plants, algae and animals clean freshwater ecosystems by filtering excess nutrients, pathogens and pollutants. This is crucial for drinking water production.


Lynch, A. J., Cooke, S. J., Arthington, A. H., Baigun, C., Bossenbroek, L., Dickens, C., Harrison, I., Kimirei, I., Langhans, S. D., Murchie, K. J., Olden, J. D., Ormerod, S. J., Owuor, M., Raghavan, R., Samways, M. J., Schinegger, R., Sharma, S., Tachamo-Shah, R.-D., Tickner, D., Jähnig, S. C. (2023). People need freshwater biodiversity. WIREs Water, e1633.

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