50 Stories: Conserving freshwater ecosystems

On April 29, 2011, WWF celebrated 50 years of environmental conservation. Join us as we highlight 50 stories in 50 days, looking back at what we’ve achieved together and looking forward to another 50 years.
It’s the most vital of all natural resources. All life on Earth depends upon it.
But our water supplies are under stress. The rivers and streams, lakes and wetlands we love are feeling the strain. And people are feeling the effects too.

Brown trout, Bornholm, Denmark (c) Wild Wonders of Europe/Martin Falklind/WWF
What’s at stake?
Already, 2.3 billion people live in areas where there’s not enough clean water to go round – and this could rise to half the world’s population in the next 20 years.
Our ever-increasing demands for water – for agriculture, industry, hydropower and household use – are putting rivers, lakes and wetlands under huge pressure. Pollution and the impact of climate change are exacerbating the situation.
These are having a devastating effect on freshwater wildlife. Their numbers have declined by 35% since 1970 – a greater decrease than for species living on land or at sea.
While thousands of species of fish, animals, birds and plants struggle to adapt and survive, people too face increased flooding, lower crop yields and declining fisheries.
The story so far
In 1971, we helped establish the Ramsar Convention, an international agreement to protect wetlands and other fragile freshwater and coastal ecosystems.
By 1996, 1,000 wetlands – covering 810,000 sq km – had been included in the Ramsar list of Wetlands of International Importance. And our campaigning has helped bring a further 1 million sq km of freshwater areas worldwide under protection – that’s an area three times the size of Germany. We want to see another 2.5 million sq km of wetland protected by 2015.
One big success has been to make the River Danube healthier. In 2000 we worked with the governments of Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Moldova to set up a ‘green corridor’ of protected areas along the lower reaches of the river.
Ten years on, the plan covers 14,000 sq km of wetland – much more than the original target. In 2009, Croatia and Hungary committed to another 6,300 sq km protected area along the Danube and its tributaries the Drava and Mura. There are plans to extend this to 8,000 sq km including Austria, Serbia and Slovenia in future.
WWF was instrumental in establishing the world’s largest freshwater reserve on Lake Superior, covering an area of 1 million hectares. WWF supported this cooperative effort to protect this rugged and unspoiled area for 10 years. This was a long-awaited victory for the residents of the North Shore and was truly a collaborative effort amongst many diverse groups of people. This protection is excellent news for the species that inhabit this area, such as peregrine falcons, loons, woodland caribou, trout and pickerel.
Did you know?
Only 3% of the water on Earth is fresh water. But we can only access about 1% of that. The rest is frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps, or stored underground.
Facts and stats

  • 3% – the tiny amount of the world’s water that’s freshwater
  • 2.3 billion – people affected by moderate to severe water stress
  • 70% – water we use soaked up by agriculture

What next?
We’re working to improve the way river basins are managed, focusing on 10 of the planet’s most important rivers.
A big part of this is making agriculture more water efficient. We want to transform the way “thirsty crops” like cotton, rice and sugarcane are produced – and we’re making progress.
Climate change will have a big impact on rivers and wetlands, bringing unpredictable rainfall and increased flooding. Our work under the HSBC Climate Partnership is helping four of the world’s major rivers – the Amazon, Ganges, Yangtze and Thames – withstand the effects of climate change. This will make a huge difference to the lives of the hundreds of millions of people who rely on these rivers.
What you can do
Be aware of your own water footprint.
Find out practical ways you can make a difference through our Living Planet Community.
Explore the Freshwater Ecoregions of the World.
Be part of the celebration!