Is 2021 the Year of the River? The Importance of Freshwater Protection

By Michael Salama

Freshwater ecosystems, while some of the most valuable, biodiverse, and threatened areas on our planet, are often overlooked in the realm of conservation. Covering less than one percent of the Earth’s surface, these ecosystems harbor around ten percent of all living things, and one third of all known vertebrate species. River floodplains and estuaries are the most productive ecosystems in the world for human communities. But although they are critical to not only human lives and livelihoods but to most life on Earth, these ecosystems have come under intensely destructive anthropogenic stress in the past half century. Freshwater species have a higher risk of extinction than do terrestrial taxa, with one third currently facing threat of extinction. Aquatic fauna populations continue to decline as human dependence on freshwater ecosystems increases, posing a major threat to political, social, and economic stability as well as biodiversity.

With local and international conservation initiatives alike becoming increasingly prominent in the past decades, why have these disproportionately valuable ecosystems continued to undergo this kind of degradation? Unfortunately, the conservation community has long overlooked the necessity of specializing protective mechanisms for freshwater and fluvial ecosystems. Protected areas and other area-based methods remain to be the most common approaches to conservation, focusing almost exclusively on terrestrial and marine ecosystems. In the backyard of Pedasí, for example, the federally established (though continually threatened) Refugio de Vida Silvestre Pablo Arturo Barrios [link to previous blog#1], aims to avoid disturbance of the Panama Gulf marine ecosystem and the dry forest, dune, and beach terrestrial ones. Globally, less than a third of rivers have any component inside of protected areas, and only about one in ten are fully protected. Often, freshwater bodies are considered to be protected when the land around them is, but that assumption does not take into account many of the unique threats that fluvial systems can face. Area-based protection does not spare freshwater ecosystems from upstream impacts like contaminants, impoundments, invasive species, overfishing and other disturbances. In other words, nothing stops threats from entering a fluvial ecosystem outside of a protected area, then flowing into that area and disrupting the ecological balance both in the water and on land. More directly, protected areas many times do not prevent impoundments from being made on fluvial ecosystems within their bounds; to date, over 1200 dams have been counted inside of officially protected areas. That number will increase by 500 in the next twenty years.

With all evidence pointing to area-based protection’s insufficiency for freshwater protection, we need a shift in perspective. Rather than continuing to follow the false mantra that protecting the land around a river will protect the river as much as the land, we must allocate specific attention, efforts, and resources to the long-lasting protection of freshwater ecosystems. This shift may be a logistical challenge, but studies have shown that the rewards are readily achievable. Integrating the needs of freshwater ecosystems into overall protection schemes can lead to a six-fold increase in benefits to freshwater species, while only decreasing terrestrial outcomes by 1%.

Fortunately, this shift has been underway in the past year. Large conservation voices like The Nature Conservancy and the World Wide Fund for Nature have been realigning their approaches to be more conscious of the needs of freshwater ecosystems, so much so that 2021 has been deemed to be “The Year of the River”. With a team of experts at TNC, I helped develop a global policy framework for the durable protection of freshwater, so that conservation projects worldwide can orient their efforts toward threat avoidance of free-flowing ecosystems. The European Union’s biodiversity strategy has recognized the need for freshwater conservation policy and has accepted TNC’s framework as a first step. The Rights of Rivers initiative (part of the Rights of Nature movement) essentially encourages countries to grant rivers fundamental, basic rights like hydrologic connectivity and sustainable water quality. It has gained momentum across the world, with more than 75 organizations taking part through the United Nations’ Biodiversity Summit and countries like the United States, Columbia, Ecuador, Australia, New Zealand, and India adopting the movement. Separately, nations like China that had previously disregarded the health of their watersheds are starting to establish federal protections now as well.

It takes more than just one “Year of the River” to fix the shortcomings of centuries of development and anthropogenic disturbance, especially when conservation efforts generally have not addressed these issues. But 2021 is shaping up to be an inflection point in terms of pushing freshwater protection needs to the forefront of international conservation. It is imperative for the future of these ecosystems, and for the future of human dependence on them, that local protection projects to focus resources on identifying, evaluating, and alleviating threats to their freshwater ecosystems at scale. Latin America continues to play a key leadership role in this process, as countries and NGOs are beginning to integrate into policy more protection for their highly valuable—and highly altered—freshwater landscapes.

Pro Eco Azuero’s watershed reforestation initiative is a fantastic example of this. Dry forest is being strategically restored along the Oria River basin, providing a riparian buffer zone of trees to improve water quality. This kind of buffer prevents the excessive erosion of sediment and keeps agricultural runoff from contaminating the river. The presence of trees along a riparian corridor like this one is also critical to the sustenance of biodiversity in a river; woody inputs like fallen trees and branches carve out feeding and spawning grounds for fishes and other aquatic life, propagating the balance of the entire ecosystem. This balance, and the overall health of freshwater ecosystems like rivers and mangroves in Azuero, is key to the region’s economic future. The communities of Los Santos depend heavily on fishing for economic and nutritional sustenance, and many fish populations rely on intact freshwater ecosystems for spawning and reproducing locations. As Pro Eco Azuero continues the process of restoring and protecting the riparian corridors of Los Santos, we are fighting for the conservation of entire Panamanian ecosystems, lives, and livelihoods. Other organizations in other countries need to follow suit to pave the way for a healthier, more biodiverse, and free-flowing future.

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