IPBES and the Threats to the World's Fresh Water

Today, the world hears the findings of many of the globe’s preeminent experts and scientists who have spent the past three years reviewing over 15,000 reports on the state of nature as part of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Their conclusions are shocking. The words of the IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson, say it all: “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.” 

In other words, we are destroying the building blocks of life on which we rely. Fresh water is undeniably one of those building blocks. Here are just a few of the findings of the IPBES report related to Earth’s freshwater resources:

  • Around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction. The Living Planet Index, which synthesizes trends in vertebrate populations, finds that freshwater species have suffered the greatest decline since 1970, falling by 84%, as compared to 40% for terrestrial species, and 35% for marine species
  • Nearly 75% of freshwater resources are devoted to crop or livestock production
  • 40% of the global population lacks access to clean and safe drinking water
  • More than 80% of wastewater is discharged untreated into the global environment
  • More than 85% of global wetlands have been lost, and the current rate of loss of wetlands is three times faster than forest loss
  • In my lifetime, since 1970, there has been a 70% increase in numbers of invasive alien species across 21 countries with detailed records (think Asian carp, water hyacinth, nutria)

To put these findings in perspective, here is a graphic depiction of how much fresh water there is on the entire planet:

We no longer have the luxury of squandering this precious resource by dumping our pollution into it, overusing it to grow lawns and crops, or drying up freshwater lakes and rivers with excessive diversions and dams. The massive decline of freshwater-dependent species is telling us that our practices are unsustainable. Nor do we have the option of deciding that we can save certain species once everyone on earth has food, shelter and clean water to drink. Rather, we must save species and the habitats that they depend on in order to provide food, shelter and clean water to drink for everyone on earth

We have the solutions to do much better. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has found that as much as 60 percent of the water diverted or pumped for irrigation is wasted. We can grow the same amount of crops with far less water.  We can save vast amounts of water by converting lawns—the largest irrigated “crop” in the United States—to less water-demanding landscapes. We can recycle and reuse our wastewater, rather than dumping it into the environment. And we can restore iconic freshwater species like salmon, around which entire ecosystems may regenerate. Now is the time to put those solutions in place. If one message rings clear from today’s report, tomorrow may be too late.  

About the Authors

Kate Poole

Senior Director, Water Division, Nature program

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