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Freshwater Challenge

Largest river and wetland restoration initiative in history launched at UN Water Conference
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Drone view of a lush green coastal forest surronding Cheakamus River in Whistler, Canada

A coalition of governments has launched the Freshwater Challenge – the largest ever initiative to restore degraded rivers, lakes and wetlands, which are central to tackling the world’s worsening water, climate and nature crises.
 
Announced at the UN Water Conference in New York, the Freshwater Challenge aims to restore 300,000km of rivers  – enough to circle the Earth more than seven times – and 350 million hectares of wetlands (an area larger than India) by 2030.

Degraded ecosystems

Along with water supplies, healthy freshwater ecosystems provide a wealth of benefits to people and nature.

They are critical for mitigating and adapting to climate change and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Yet one-third of the world’s wetlands have been lost over the past 50 years, and we are still losing them faster than forests.

Rivers and lakes are the most degraded ecosystems in the world, with fish populations, many of which are vital for community food security, pushed to the brink.
 
Released this week, the IPCC’s sixth assessment report outlines the serious impacts of climate change on freshwater ecosystems, highlighting the need to protect and restore them to enhance adaptation and build resilient societies, economies and ecosystems.

‘Healthy rivers, lakes and wetlands underpin our societies and economies, yet they are routinely undervalued and overlooked. That is what makes the commitment by the governments of Colombia, DR Congo, Ecuador, Gabon, Mexico and Zambia so commendable. While countries have pledged to restore one billion hectares of land, the Freshwater Challenge is a critical first step in bringing a much-needed focus on freshwater ecosystems.’

INGER ANDERSEN
UNEP executive director

Why water matters

A scientific report published to launch the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration noted that countries already pledged to restore 1 billion hectares – an area larger than China. But freshwater ecosystems do not feature explicitly among the commitments assessed.

About 4 billion people, representing nearly two-thirds of the global population, experience severe water scarcity at least one month of the year.

2.3 billion people, or around one quarter of the global population, live in water-stressed countries.

Almost three-quarters of all recent natural disasters are water related, including floods, droughts and storms. These disasters have destroyed lives and livelihoods, impacted millions and caused $700 billion in economic damage in the past 20 years.

By 2050, five times as much land is likely to face ‘extreme drought’ and 5.7 billion people are likely to live in water scarce areas. The number of people at risk from floods is projected to rise to around 1.6 billion
 

Inclusion and collaboration

The Freshwater Challenge is a country-driven initiative with an inclusive, collaborative approach to implementation, where governments and their partners will co-create freshwater solutions with Indigenous people, local communities and other stakeholders.

Championed by the governments of Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Gabon, Mexico and Zambia, the Freshwater Challenge calls on all governments to commit to clear targets in their updated National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans, National Determined Contributions and National Implementation Plan for the SDGs to urgently restore healthy freshwater ecosystems.

‘This initiative is in line with the priorities of the National Development Plan 2022-2026, which will allow the country to strengthen Territorial Planning around Water by protecting all water systems from a perspective of water as a common resource and fundamental right. This implies the participation of communities to resolve socio-environmental conflicts, respecting cultural diversity and guaranteeing the conservation of biodiversity.’

SUSANA MUHAMAD
Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development,  Colombia

Benefits to people and nature

Building on the Global Biodiversity Framework agreed in Montreal in December 2022, which included the restoration of 30% of the world’s degraded ‘inland waters’, the Challenge will contribute to the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

The UN Decade is a drive to revive our planet, co-led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

‘The clearest sign of the damage we have done – and are still doing – to our rivers, lakes and wetlands is the staggering 83% collapse in freshwater species populations since 1970. The Freshwater Challenge puts the right goals and frameworks in place to turn this around – benefiting not only nature but also people across the world. We need governments and partners to commit to this urgently as part of the Water Action Agenda coming out of this UN conference.’

STUART ORR
Freshwater lead at WWF International

The Freshwater Challenge will focus on providing the evidence needed at country level to effectively design and implement restoration measures, identify priority areas for restoration, update relevant national strategies and plans and mobilise resources and set up financial mechanisms to implement the targets.
 
Championed by the coalition of countries, the Freshwater Challenge is supported by the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, the Secretariat of the Convention on Wetlands, WWF, IUCN, The Nature Conservancy, Wetlands International and ABinBev.

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