Largest river and wetland restoration initiative in history launched at UN Water Conference

NEW YORK, 24th March, 2023 (WAM) – A coalition of governments today launched the Freshwater Challenge - the largest ever initiative to restore degraded rivers, lakes and wetlands, which are central to tackling the world’s worsening water, climate and nature crises.

Announced at the UN Water Conference in New York, the Freshwater Challenge aims to restore 300,000km of rivers - equivalent to more than 7 times around the Earth - and 350 million hectares of wetlands - an area larger than India - by 2030.

Along with water supplies, healthy freshwater ecosystems provide a wealth of benefits to people and nature, and are critical to mitigating and adapting to climate change, and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yet one-third of the world’s wetlands have been lost over the past 50 years, and we are still losing them faster than forests. Rivers and lakes are the most degraded ecosystems in the world, with fish populations, many of which are vital for community food security, pushed to the brink.

Released this week, the IPCC’s sixth assessment report outlines the serious impacts of climate change on freshwater ecosystems, highlighting the need to protect and restore them to enhance adaptation and build resilient societies, economies and ecosystems.

Championed by the governments of Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Gabon, Mexico and Zambia, the Freshwater Challenge calls on all governments to commit to clear targets in their updated National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans, National Determined Contributions and National Implementation Plan for the SDGs to urgently restore healthy freshwater ecosystems.

The Freshwater Challenge is a country-driven initiative with an inclusive, collaborative approach to implementation, where governments and their partners will co-create freshwater solutions with indigenous people, local communities, and other stakeholders.

Building on the Global Biodiversity Framework agreed in Montreal in December 2022, which included the restoration of 30% of the world’s degraded ‘inland waters’, the Challenge will contribute to the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The UN Decade is a drive to revive our planet, co-led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director said, “Healthy rivers, lakes and wetlands underpin our societies and economies, yet they are routinely undervalued and overlooked. That is what makes the commitment by the governments of Colombia, DR Congo, Ecuador, Gabon, Mexico and Zambia so commendable. While countries have pledged to restore one billion hectares of land, the Freshwater Challenge is a critical first step in bringing a much-needed focus on freshwater ecosystems.”

Stuart Orr, Freshwater Lead at WWF International said, “The clearest sign of the damage we have done - and are still doing - to our rivers, lakes and wetlands is the staggering 83% collapse in freshwater species populations since 1970. The Freshwater Challenge puts the right goals and frameworks in place to turn this around - benefiting not only nature but also people across the world. We need governments and partners to commit to this urgently as part of the Water Action Agenda coming out of this UN conference.”

The Freshwater Challenge will focus on providing the evidence needed at country level to effectively design and implement restoration measures, identify priority areas for restoration, update relevant national strategies and plans, and mobilise resources and set up financial mechanisms to implement the targets.

Championed by the coalition of countries, the Freshwater Challenge is supported by the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, the Secretariat of the Convention on Wetlands, WWF, IUCN, The Nature Conservancy, Wetlands International and ABinBev.