Mainstreaming freshwater ecosystem health

Freshwater plays a fundamental role in support of the environment, society and the economy. Ecosystems such as wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes are indispensable for life on our planet. Freshwater ecosystems are also vital for directly ensuring a range of benefits and services such as drinking water and recreation, water for agriculture and energy, habitats for aquatic life forms, and natural solutions for water purification and climate resilience, among many other uses.

According to the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Index 2016, freshwater species declined by 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012.  

Managed effectively, freshwater ecosystems also directly support terrestrial ecosystems, such as mountains and forests, large marine ecosystems and coastal zones. As such, they are essential for sustainable development and human well-being. Acknowledgement of the pivotal role of freshwater in sustainable development was central to the creation of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”

To function properly and to remain healthy, freshwater ecosystems require the effective management of both quantity and quality of water resources. Yet these conditions are increasingly under threat. In addition to the growing demand that freshwater supplies face for human purposes, the effects of climate change are also exacerbating changes to the hydrological cycle, manifesting themselves in more frequent and severe extreme events and disasters such as drought and floods. This in turn undermines the ability of freshwater ecosystems to contribute to both climate change adaptation and mitigation.

What we do

To help countries set a framework for freshwater ecosystem management, as per UN Environment Assembly decision 27/3, UN Environment conducts work to protect and restore freshwater ecosystems, for example through 'A Framework for Freshwater Ecosystem Management'.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) is a global initiative hosted by UN Environment whose principal objective is to mainstream the values of biodiversity and ecosystem services into decision-making at all levels. As administrator, UN Environment coordinates with the other UN agencies that are directly engaged: FAO, UNDP and UNESCO.

UN Environment is also the global custodian of SDG indicator 6.6.1on the protection and restoration of freshwater ecosystems, and assists countries in the monitoring and reporting on this indicator.

The Global Peatlands Initiative is an effort by leading experts and institutions that work together to save peatlands as the world’s largest terrestrial organic carbon stock and to prevent it being emitted into the atmosphere.

With the support of the UN-REDD Programme, Chile’s National Forest Corporation (CONAF) began restoring the native forests in Los Rios in 2016 to increase the availability of water resources for different uses and to protect water sources for the future.