Only 17 percent of the rivers are free flowing and within protected areas, leaving a majority of the freshwater ecosystem highly threatened and risking the species that rely on them. The findings are elaborated in the journal Sustainability.
As the world looks forward to establish new conservation targets at the meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity later this year, the scientists have called on policy makers to prioritise protection of freshwater ecosystems. This helps in protecting the species and better integration of land and water conservation, they added.
Freshwater specialist at Conservation International Ian Harrison pointed out that population of fresh water species have already come down by 84 percent on average since 1970. He attributed degradation of rivers as a leading cause to this.
Harrison, co-editor of the journal issue, noted the importance of protecting the fresh waters as they are critical food source for millions of people.
A coalition of water resource experts, including representatives from academia as well as the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy, coordinated the first-of-its-kind collection of papers in the journal.
They aimed at bringing out a blueprint to policymakers so they can integrate the best available science into environmental action plans. Moreover, freshwater protection receives less attention and funding.
The Journal has a collection of 15 studies. Denielle Perry, a water resource geographer who leads the Free-flowing Rivers Lab in the School of Earth and Sustainability at NAU co-edited the journal.
Perry said that fresh water ecosystems are among the most understudied and under protected. She noted that these ecosystems are at risk from further severe alteration and degradation by a range of threats. The threats are poorly sited dam construction, overfishing, excessive water extraction and pollution. She called for protecting the rivers now as failing to do so would have lasting consequences for decades to come.
The topics range from global assessments to local case studies. This includes framework for durable river protection, safeguarding free-flowing rivers through various policy mechanisms. It deals with adaptive management of the Malkumba-Coongie Lakes Ramsar site in Australia. The study involves the biological and cultural importance of sustainable floodplains in North Africa. The issue also features rivers in India, Mongolia, Mexico, China and the United States.
The studies show clear scientific evidence for the value of free-flowing rivers. This includes their ability to sustain migratory fish and to deliver the sediment needed to maintain river deltas. They also highlight the importance for increased protections for free-flowing rivers as part of river basin management strategies.
WWF’s global lead freshwater scientist Jeff Opperman said that protection for large rivers in most countries is far lower.