Freshwater ecosystems supply food, water and energy to billions of people, protect us from droughts and floods, and provide unique habitat for many plants and animals, including one third of all vertebrate species. These ecosystems range from mangroves shielding our coasts against tsunamis and erosion, to inland lakes and rivers teeming with fish, and wetlands that filter and moderate water flows while storing vast amounts of carbon.
Freshwater ecosystems are particularly degraded. They face pollution from chemicals, plastics and sewage as well as over-fishing and over-extraction of water to irrigate crops, generate power and supply industry and homes. Rivers face additional impacts from dams, canalisation and mining for sand and gravel. Wetlands are being drained for agriculture, with some 87 per cent lost globally in the last 300 years, and more than 50 per cent since 1900. One in three freshwater species are threatened with extinction.
Protecting and restoring freshwater ecosystems can involve improving water quality, for instance by treating all waste water before it is discharged. Fishing and mining must be controlled. Dams can be removed or better designed to restore river connectivity, while water extraction can be managed to maintain minimum flows. Returning water flows in peatlands and other wetlands to nature levels restores their ability to prevent stored carbon from reaching the atmosphere.
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