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New scientific paper: Global action plan could limit decline in freshwater biodiversity

19 February 2020
by WWF -- last modified 19 February 2020

With biodiversity vanishing from rivers, lakes and wetlands at alarming speed, a new scientific paper outlines an action plan to reverse the rapid decline in the world’s freshwater species and habitats.


Published today in BioScience, this Emergency Recovery Plan was developed by a global team of scientists from WWF, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Conservation International, Cardiff University and other eminent organisations and academic institutions.

The plan calls for the world to take urgent steps to tackle the threats that have led to an 83% collapse in the world's freshwater species populations and the loss of 30% of freshwater ecosystems since 1970 - ecosystems that provide us with water, food, livelihoods, and protection from floods, droughts and storms. This catastrophic decline in freshwater biodiversity is also evident in Europe, where one in three freshwater fish species are on the brink of extinction, and a quarter of amphibians are threatened.

"The causes of the global collapse in freshwater biodiversity are no secret, yet the world has consistently failed to act, turning a blind eye to the worsening crisis even though healthy freshwater ecosystems are central to our survival. The Emergency Recovery Plan provides an ambitious roadmap to safeguarding freshwater biodiversity - and all the benefits it provides to people across the world," said co-author, Professor Steven Cooke of Carleton University in Canada.

The plan prioritises solutions rooted in cutting-edge science and which have already proven successful in certain locations, such as letting rivers flow more naturally, reducing pollution, protecting critical wetland habitats and safeguarding and restoring river connectivity through better planning of dams and other infrastructure. In the EU, there is already a strong framework to ensure member states take such measures to protect and restore freshwater ecosystems - the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD). The critical role that the WFD plays in bringing life back to these ecosystems and halting the decline in freshwater biodiversity was highlighted in an open letter from 5,500+ scientists, including a large number of freshwater biodiversity experts, which was sent to the European Commission in December.

This paper comes at a critical time: On 5 March, representatives from EU member states will gather in Brussels for a meeting of the Environment Council. In addition to the other agenda points, there will be a policy debate on the European Commission's conclusions of the evaluation of the WFD (a standard review known as a "fitness check"), which found the law to be "fit for purpose" and that member states must now drastically step up their efforts to implement the law. In contradiction to these clear conclusions, the European Commission has still not fully committed to preserving the law in its current form, sending mixed messages to member states and citizens and slowing down implementation of the law. As WWF, we call for the European Commission and for member states to respect the findings of the fitness check and commit to not opening the Directive.

Claire Baffert, Senior Water Policy Officer at WWF's European Policy Office, said: "The independent evaluation of the EU water law made clear that it is the right tool to bring life back to Europe's rivers...when implemented! In contradiction to this, the European Commission has still not committed to preserving this vital legislation, which is critical in the fight against biodiversity loss, and an essential pillar of the European Green Deal. Our eyes are on the Commission and member states as they get set to discuss this law on the 5th of March: Will they commit to stepping up their implementation of the law, or keep delaying action?"

The European Policy Office helps shape EU policies that impact on the European and global environment.