Tackling the world’s forgotten crisis:
An Emergency Recovery Plan for freshwater biodiversity

6 min readFeb 19, 2020


By David Tickner, Chief Freshwater Advisor WWF-UK, James Dalton, Director Global Water Programme IUCN and James Robinson, Director of Conservation Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust

Here’s a thought experiment you can try. First, imagine the world’s major stock markets lost four fifths of their value.

Now ask yourself, would governments stand by and do nothing to reverse the decline?

As planetary emergencies gather pace, it’s a very relevant question, especially as 2020 represents possibly our last chance to turn things around. And despite the scale of the climate and biodiversity crises, there are some encouraging signs. Climate action is ramping up. School strikes, Extinction Rebellion and anti-plastic campaigns are in the news. The EU has committed to a Green Deal. Nature is in the frame like never before.

But one of the most important environmental issues of all has so far received way too little attention: the catastrophic collapse in freshwater species and habitats that’s threatening our life-support systems.

Over the last 50 years, there has been an 83% decline in freshwater species populations, according to WWF’s Living Planet Index (LPI). The LPI is essentially a stock market index, but focused on wildlife populations rather than share prices.

Freshwater species populations have fallen by 83% on average since 1970 © WWF / ZSL

This a shocking rate of loss, more than twice as fast as anything we’ve seen on land or in the ocean. Large freshwater species — such as river dolphins, beavers, crocodiles and sturgeon — have been hit even harder, with over 88% disappearing. As it stands, more than a quarter of freshwater species (including a third of all freshwater fish) may be headed for extinction.

During the same half-century, some 30% of our remaining freshwater ecosystems have been destroyed — ecosystems that have long been undervalued and overlooked but that provide us with water, food, local livelihoods and economies, and protection from floods, droughts and storms.

Freshwater species and habitats have been on a steeply declining curve throughout our lifetimes. Our attempts to ring alarm bells have largely fallen on deaf ears in both the conservation and water management worlds. Our efforts to slow the losses have secured local successes, but done little to change the global trend. And now there’s very little time left to bend the curve of freshwater wildlife loss back upwards.

But we must. For our own sakes, as much as for the wildlife.

Fishing in the healthy, free flowing Luangwa river Zambia © James Suter / Black Bean Productions / WWF-US

Without healthy rivers and wetlands, we won’t have enough water to drink or crops to eat, and millions of people, particularly those in poorer countries will lose crucial (and often free) nutrition from freshwater fisheries. In addition, as the climate crisis intensifies, free flowing rivers and healthy wetlands — such as marshes, mangroves, swamps and peatlands — can mitigate the impact of the extreme weather events that are becoming stronger and more frequent: they help absorb and slow down extreme floods, store reserves for times of drought, and buffer cities and communities against rising seas.

And we can. The scale and urgency of the unfolding crisis call for drastic steps to halt the decline and start restoring what we’ve lost — begin bringing life back to our dying freshwater ecosystems.

That’s why we and a team of the best scientists and policy experts from across the globe have developed an Emergency Recovery Plan for freshwater biodiversity. The six-point strategy, just published in the journal BioScience, is a realistic and pragmatic one, based on measures that have already been tried and tested in at least some rivers, lakes and wetlands. It’s a comprehensive plan that moves us away from today’s ad hoc conservation successes towards a strategic approach that can deliver solutions at the scale necessary to reverse the collapse in biodiversity — and set us on course to a future where our freshwater ecosystems are once again fully healthy and teeming with wildlife.

None of this is rocket science. The Emergency Recovery Plan focusses on the main threats to our freshwater world — threats that are no secret. But it does so in a new way with the emphasis on the necessary scale and speed to tackle the current crisis.

Our plan calls for rapid measures to be implemented globally to let rivers flow more naturally, protect and restore critical habitats, and slash pollution levels. It outlines the need to control the spread of invasive aquatic species and end overfishing and unsustainable sand-mining. It also highlights the need to protect the world’s remaining free flowing rivers and remove the tens of thousands of obsolete dams and barriers.

Crucially, the Emergency Recovery Plan also recommends a list of targets for the new global commitments to conserve and restore biodiversity that governments will sign at a landmark conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity in November, as well as for the major 2020 reviews of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement.

These targets will help to fill critical freshwater gaps in previous agreements, such as restoring more natural river flows, controlling illegal and unregulated sand mining in rivers, and improving the management of freshwater fisheries that feed hundreds of millions of people.

Albert Einstein is said to have said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” If we carry on undervaluing and neglecting the health of freshwater habitats, the curve of biodiversity loss will keep on heading downwards, and our life-support systems will diminish — one dammed river, one polluted lake and one converted wetland at a time. We will turn every river and stream into a drain with little living in it or near it.

Or we could try this different path. We could listen to the science, commit to the Emergency Recovery Plan, and save freshwater species and ecosystems — and ourselves — before it’s too late. This is a real opportunity for a new future: one where, for the first time in our lives, our wetlands are places of growth and plenty, rich in biodiversity. For the sake of life on Earth, bending the freshwater curve back upwards is the only path we can possibly take.

Back to our thought experiment. You can bet your bottom dollar that governments would stop at nothing to reverse a steep and sustained drop in the Dow Jones Index or the FTSE 100. Business leaders, financiers, city mayors and communities would throw their weight behind the effort too.

Our Emergency Recovery Plan for global freshwater biodiversity will need similarly committed backing from all these people but particularly our political leaders if it is to succeed. Watch this space…because we will be watching how governments commit and perform from now on.

Healthy rivers and wetlands underpin all our societies and economies




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