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Blueprint for Freshwater Life

The Blueprint of FreshWater Life – Summary of Intent

Freshwaters are among the most diverse, dynamic, and complex ecosystems globally. They represent the ultimate biodiversity hotspot with more than 10% of all described species concentrated within less than one percent of the earth’s surface, and the services they provide to people are estimated at approximately 29 trillion USD per year. Despite the immense value of these ecosystems we have lost more than 64% of the world’s wetlands since 1900 with the rate of loss being fastest in inland systems, the decline in populations of freshwater species is estimated to be 76% for those populations monitored since 1976 – this rate of decline being double that seen in either terrestrial of marine systems, and approximately one in three of freshwater species assessed is threatened with extinction. Human actions are largely to blame for this catastrophic loss of natural capital with environmental accounting for development actions largely failing to recognise the services provided by freshwater ecosystems and the impact of development actions. Freshwater species are being lost, many before we even know they exist.

How have we arrived at this situation? Across the globe freshwater wetlands have traditionally been viewed as wastelands best suited for conversion to other “more productive” purposes. In fact many countries have for decades actively encouraged the conversion of wetlands to alternative uses. More recently they have also been modified in ways that suit the objectives of human development such as to provide electricity through hydropower, to create reservoirs of water for drinking, agriculture and industrial uses, to mitigate flooding (with perverse impacts in many cases). Impacts to freshwater ecosystems and their supporting species are rarely factored into decision making processes and the significant loss of services remains substantial but largely unrecognised. In effect, this ongoing loss and destruction of the world’s freshwater ecosystems and their associated biodiversity represents the collateral damage of largely uncontrolled human development.

Awareness for the values of freshwater ecosystems and their species is, however, now increasing in some parts of the world as we start to realise the huge impacts of their loss and degradation, such as through the extensive flooding seen where wetlands have been drained or built over. In other part of the world, however, the value of wetlands and other freshwater ecosystems remains largely unrecognised and for a large proportion of the world we still have little if any information on the distribution of inland wetlands, their associated species and the threats they face. Against this historical preference to convert wetlands for other purposes we also continue to view many of their associated species as replaceable agricultural products.

In terms of recorded biodiversity loss, the majority of recorded extinctions in recent times are in freshwaters and many more are on the brink of extinction, such as the impressive sturgeons which have been around since the time of the dinosaurs, a number of species of river dolphins and many of the lesser known species people rarely even see.

So who is aware of this tragic situation?  Many are aware of impacts to the world’s marine fisheries, the coral reefs, the loss of tropical forests and the tragic plight of species such as tigers and rhinos but the loss of freshwater ecosystems and their species is seldom appreciated despite their much more rapid rates of degradation and loss of species and the huge loss of ecosystem services to people. The time is therefore ripe for a major initiative to: i) build global awareness on freshwater ecosystems and their species, ii) fill the extensive information gaps as needed to inform sustainable development, and iii) to mobilise the huge body of existing research information, such as on the functioning of wetlands, for application to the sustainable management and conservation of the world’s freshwater ecosystems. A paradigm shift in human understanding and appreciation for the value of freshwater ecosystems is required – before they are further degraded or lost and it becomes too expensive to restore them and their services to mankind. This task is not easy given that most species live in turbid waters and remain largely unseen such that we fail to notice what is being lost.

In response to this need we now call for support to a major initiative, which we name The Blueprint for Freshwater Life (The Blueprint), to put freshwater species on the world map in terms of their conservation values, service values to humanity, and for the amazing diversity of life which is so poorly understood or recognised today. Without such a large scale global initiative we will continue to degrade and destroy one of the most important ecosystems on this planet.

Through this initiate we will:

• Put freshwater ecosystems and species on the world map by filling critical information gaps on wetland and species distributions and their threats, so creating the currently missing baseline for guiding sustainable development of the worlds freshwater ecosystems

• Identify the most important places on Earth for freshwater ecosystems, their associated species and the services they provide as a further basis for informing conservation and development planning.

• Create awareness of the existence of freshwater species and their tremendous importance to people and extraordinary beauty and diversity, through education, visual media, high profile expeditions of discovery and application of cutting edge technologies.

• Create a global expert network to provide a voice for freshwater ecosystems at international and national conservation and development fora.

• Harness the world’s scientific institutions to apply their huge body of research on freshwater ecosystems functioning to aid and inform conservation and development actions.

Without a global scale initiative such as proposed here we will continue to actively and rapidly erode one of the world’s most important resources – its freshwater ecosystems. The Blueprint is a scientific endeavor to advance research on the world’s freshwater biodiversity sensu lato by combining and integrating the expertise of globally focused organizations such as IUCN, UNESCO, WWF with that of the world’s outstanding scientific institutions such as the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB), Germany, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag). This close collaboration among organizations will help to ensure the required integration of science with education and conservation.

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