Freshwater biodiversity is crashing: Time for an emergency turn-around strategy.

By Dean Muruven, WWF Global Freshwater Policy Lead

It’s been a week and I’m still struggling to come to terms with the shocking figures in . Most freshwater conservationists were expecting bad news but still…we have now lost 84% of our freshwater species populations since 1970. That statistic is scary and mind-blowing.

This is not a bolt from the blue. Every two years the Living Planet Report comes out and each edition has sounded an increasingly shrill alarm about freshwater species. Normally, this is the moment when freshwater conservationists from all corners of the world lament the rapid decline of the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit our rivers, lakes and wetlands. And our discussions about how to finally bend the freshwater biodiversity curve inevitably centre around three things:

1. How do we move the freshwater biodiversity crisis up the global agenda?

2. How can we engage non-traditional partners? (With a fixation on the finance sector.)

3. How can we get governments to do more to protect freshwater biodiversity?

But before the bi-annual ‘Freshwater Lament’ kicks into full gear, everybody working towards bending the freshwater biodiversity curve should pause for a moment to reflect on just what it is that we’re doing. If you are wondering why it’s worth taking a moment to reflect, consider what Margaret Wheatley a management guru says about reflection, “without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.”

Her words may seem harsh but given the staggering rate of loss occurring on our watch, reflection cannot hurt — especially considering how critical healthy freshwater ecosystems are to our societies and economies. To help with our collective freshwater reflection let us stay with the management theme.

Sink or swim: Freshwater biodiversity on the brink © Will Burrard-Lucas / WWF-US

Is Freshwater Conservation the next Blockbuster or Netflix?

Some of the younger freshwater conservationists may not remember the old school video rental concept made famous by Blockbuster in the late 80s and early 90s. Blockbuster’s stores were so ubiquitous and the company so successful that in 1994 it was valued at a whopping (back then) US$8.4 billion. In 1997, Netflix entered the market. I’m pretty confident that every freshwater conservationist has heard of Netflix and most have used it — after all it is the only way to watch the Emmy nominated series, Our Planet, which has an entire episode dedicated to freshwater (if you have not seen it yet, then you’ve just found your next series to binge watch). Netflix is now worth over US$220 billion, with its share price floating around US$520. Meanwhile, you can buy Blockbuster shares as a penny share, that is bought over the counter and worth about a penny!

The trajectory of Blockbuster Video’s value is not dissimilar to another curve we know all too well: the freshwater Living Planet Index. The major difference being that Blockbuster is a lot closer to zero than we are.

Don’t worry, this is not a blog for MBA students about the Blockbuster vs Netflix case study. But imagine for a minute that you were a member of the supervisory or advisory board of Blockbuster in the late 90s. Imagine sitting there and watching the collapse of the company because management made a conscious effort to operate within their existing bubble even when all the signs and signals showed that the world around them was changing and changing fast!

Now imagine yourself as part of the advisory board of Freshwater Inc. — the multinational company responsible for creating value out of freshwater conservation, for bending the share (aka species population curve) upwards. There would be two options:

  • Option 1: You can let Freshwater Inc stick with its existing operating model in the belief that it will eventually pay dividends for freshwater species;
  • Option 2: You can let your fellow board members know that it is time to panic and that we must reimagine our company to survive.

Option 1 is easier, but I think we all know how that story ends. Option 2 requires a deep and critical reflection. By all of us in the freshwater world.

Time for reflection: We all need to value freshwater ecosystems & biodiversity ©
Minzayar Oo / WWF-US

If you have been an academic championing freshwater conservation throughout your career, you may have to finally accept that all those important (and they are critically important) science papers and commentary pieces in top academic journals have not had the expected impact. Instead of helping to save species, they have largely catalogued their decline. Maybe it’s time to start focusing on policies as well as papers — and perhaps even protests. You can start by shouting (and scribbling letters) whenever you see ‘land and ocean’ in a scientific paper, report or policy document because this makes it easy to forget freshwater. People in the real world don’t think land = freshwater. And guess what, they’re right.

If you’re developing the academic curriculum for future freshwater conservationists, then this might be the moment to ask whether the current curriculum will give them the right skills for a world that has lost 84% of its freshwater species populations. Maybe the freshwater conservationist of the future needs to think more like a water manager or an investment banker, if we are to truly bend the curve?

As NGOs we need to think about what is it that we are prepared to let go off. We will never secure a new global biodiversity framework that incorporates every one of our ideal targets and indicators. So let’s be realistic and focus on getting the best deal and then helping countries to actually implement it. And that means no longer agonizing over the definition of, say, Nature-based Solutions but instead going out and demonstrating that Nature-based Solutions can be implemented at scale and achieve real ‘concrete’ benefits for society and biodiversity. And it means freshwater conservationists working with WASH organisations. And it means reflecting on all our programmes and projects and weeding out the ones that will not contribute significantly to our global goals.

It means stepping out of the freshwater conservation bubble and start having those difficult conversations with those that share a different a world view from us — to pave the way for learning and partnerships.

And we need to learn from what is happening outside our bubble. Black Lives Matter (BLM) has shown us that sometimes you do need to just stop and shout when you are not being heard — and inspire others to do the same. I’m not for a second suggesting that the freshwater biodiversity crisis needs to have a BLM moment but rather that we should start measuring the success of our own movement by the number of voices — communities, companies, celebrities — outside the conservation bubble shouting for our cause because that is the only route to transformational change.

Apologies if this has a rather depressing read so far. But don’t despair, there is still cause for hope — it’s just that hope must no longer be the basis of our strategies.

Solutions exist: We must implement Emergency Recovery Plan for freshwater biodiversity.

The good news is that after five decades of decline we now know what needs to be done to bend the curve. We have an that boils it down to 6 priority actions that are science-based and have proven successful in places across the planet. It has also been largely reflected in the latest Global Biodiversity Outlook as the pathway to achieve a sustainable freshwater transition.

The question is are we capable as a freshwater community of coalescing around the Emergency Recovery Plan for the next five years and collectively have a go at bending the curve? A fractured and siloed approach has not worked and will not be able to tackle the increasing threats to our rivers, lakes and wetlands — and the species that depend on them. We need to come together — jettisoning our organizational agendas — to drive a movement that is dedicated to implementing those 6 priority actions at scale across the globe.

Freshwater Inc. urgently needs an Emergency Recovery Committee if we are going to survive. So if you are up for getting behind the Emergency Recovery Plan whether you are a researcher, an NGO or just someone concerned with our freshwater biodiversity crisis then get in touch with me because at this point we need all the help we can get!

If you have read this far, take some more time to reflect on your purpose for working in freshwater conservation then look at the — this is happening on our watch.

We can choose to continue down the Blockbuster path, which is a slippery slope to zero or we can opt for freshwater conservation ‘unusual’. There’s a simple way to start: every person working in freshwater conservation and reading this can commit to having at least one conversation outside the conservation bubble about the freshwater biodiversity crisis. It could be a session with high school students, a guest lecture for an MBA class, an email to a hydropower developer or simply a conversation with a friend over lunch. Think of it as a first attempt to approach things differently and remember it’s a conversation so listen to their views and perspectives too, it might give you some valuable insight.

And when you’re done, you can stream on Netflix to remind yourself why we do what we do.

PS: It is not available on VHS at Blockbuster!

© Kelsey Hartman / WWF-Greater Mekong

Building a future in which people live in harmony with nature.