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Fresh Water

By 2025, the health of the world’s major basins is improving or maintained

Overview

All life needs water. It is the world’s most precious resource, fueling everything from the food you eat, to the cotton you wear, to the energy you depend upon every day. Freshwater habitats—such as lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands and aquifers—house an incredible proportion of the world’s biodiversity: more than 10% of all known animals and about 50% of all known fish species. Yet despite the massive role water plays for people and nature, it is a surprisingly finite resource. Less than 1% of the world's water is fresh and accessible.

It’s also threatened. Climate change, population growth and changing consumption patterns are just a few of the myriad forces putting freshwater systems increasingly at risk. Freshwater species are declining at an alarming rate of 76%—much faster than terrestrial or marine species—and freshwater habitats are in worse condition than those of forests, grassland or coastal systems.

Protecting fresh water cannot happen alone. WWF partners with governments, businesses, international financial institutions and communities to ensure healthy freshwater systems exist to conserve wildlife and provide a sustainable future for all. Together, we can create a water-secure future.

Life along the Mekong: Two generations reflect on the value of clean, fresh water

While development undeniably brought about positive changes to those living along the Mekong, increased demand for water and economic growth are also leading to unsustainable infrastructure decisions. Compounded by climate change, these decisions threaten the river and all who depend on it.

Vutra washes clothing in river

Why It Matters

  • Food

    Globally, agriculture uses the highest percentage of freshwater, accounting for about 70% of total water withdrawals. While most of the water goes to irrigation, it also helps provide the energy and ecosystem services required for farming. As the planet’s population increases and consumption patterns change alongside economic prosperity, global demand for food will increase. Freshwater fish also provide an important source of protein and livelihoods for millions of people around the world.

  • Business

    Nearly every business is water-dependent in one way or another. In 2014, the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Perception Survey ranked water crises third among 10 global risks of highest concern. Issues of water scarcity and poor water quality have significant and growing social, environmental and economic consequences. And although water risk is rising quickly on the agenda of business and investors, many businesses are just beginning to understand what fresh water means to them, their profits, and their company’s long-term viability.

  • Healthy Communities

    Clean, fresh water is an essential ingredient for a healthy human life, but 1.1 billion people lack access to water and 2.4 billion don’t have adequate sanitation. Diseases caused by unsafe water and inadequate sanitation kill more people every year than all forms of violence, including war. The situation is predicted to get worse: by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may be facing water shortages. Sustainable access to fresh water and sanitation leads to healthier people and economic growth, which facilitate improved environmental management. In other words, healthy communities help preserve a healthy planet, and a healthy planet is the foundation for healthy communities.

  • Energy

    Energy and water are interdependent. Energy is required for pumping, storing, transporting and treating water, and water is essential for producing almost all kinds of energy. While the role of water in hydropower is obvious, water also irrigates biofuels, plays an essential role in fracking, and cools thermoelectric power plants like coal, nuclear, natural gas, and oil. All of these methods of energy production can have serious environmental and social consequences.

  • Nature

    Freshwater ecosystems cover less than 0.01% of the planet’s total surface area but they support more than 125,000 species, from fish to terrestrial animals. They also provide a myriad of ecosystem services, including helping to regulate the temperature of the land and sea, creating clouds and affecting the weather, transporting nutrients and minerals, and keeping nature clean and healthy by dissolving pollutants and sediment run off. However, more than half of the world’s wetlands have disappeared since 1900, and fewer than 70 of the world’s 177 longest rivers remain free of man-made obstructions.

What WWF Is Doing

Advancing Corporate Water Stewardship

We believe businesses can help us solve the world’s water problems. WWF helps governments, companies, investors, communities and others understand their water footprints and water-related risks. More importantly, we help our partners go beyond adopting water efficiency practices to becoming better water stewards. As water is the ultimate shared resource, it can only be managed sustainably if all water users in the river basin work together. Water stewardship requires collaboration with all levels of government, local communities, and other industries in a basin—sometimes even competitors—to ultimately change how water is governed and embed the value of nature into business planning. We challenge businesses to think differently about water and to help us accelerate stewardship efforts because it’s good for business, it’s good for people, and it’s good for nature.

WWF also seeks to move water stewardship forward at a global level. We lead and support numerous ground-breaking initiatives, including the Alliance for Water Stewardship's standard, United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI)’s work with investors, engagement with business sector sustainability initiatives, scientific assessments of how implementing commodity standards can benefit water quality and quantity, and water footprinting and mapping tools such as the Water Risk Filter. As part of the White House Climate Data Initiative, WWF committed to expanding, maintaining and sharing our research in partnership with leading technology companies. Such resources will empower industry, financiers and policymakers to strengthen global water stewardship, food security and climate resiliency.

Promoting Good Water Governance

people in dugout canoe, Amazon, Peru

WWF seeks to change how water is managed around the world. We encourage states relying on the same river to better coordinate their shared freshwater resources, and we advocate for water security in sustainable development. We also help strengthen the effectiveness of river basin management organizations so they are empowered to protect the natural capital of river basins and ensure climate-smart governance. By partnering with multilateral institutions and global influencers like the Global Environment Facility (GEF), we can bring our holistic management and policy solutions to scale. We also push governments and others to place water higher on global and regional agendas to ensure that freshwater ecosystem integrity is considered in decision making processes. One way we work towards this is through our Basin Report Card Initiative.

Protecting Freshwater Ecosystems

Mekong River Fishermen

Every river has a source. From its birth place—usually a snow-covered mountain peak or thick forest—a river will pass through rural communities, densely populated cities, business parks and farm lands before reaching the ocean. WWF embraces a holistic basin-wide approach to address the variety of threats to fresh water. We work on the ground in key rivers basins around the world, supporting responsible water use and infrastructure, and testing and implementing innovative solutions. We bring to bear our climate and hydrological expertise, relationships with private and public sector influencers, academic partners and extensive global network to strengthen the resiliency of freshwater systems. Learning from our experience on-the-ground, we also seek to develop and share tools, techniques and knowledge globally.

Managing Water Resources in a Changing Climate

Rio Conchos, Chihuahua Desert, Mexico

WWF has collaborated with local stakeholders and governments in critical river basins around the world to assess climate change vulnerability and plan interventions. Because institutions are central to the way water resources are managed, WWF has also engaged institutional partners to investigate how to most effectively adapt to climate change. By both working in the field, where many impacts are already being felt, and partnering with institutions, which influence water management decisions, we hope to safeguard a future where both human and environmental needs are met. We are particularly focused on building water security in the face of climate change in Asia's High Mountains and in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Projects

  • The AgWater Challenge

    In recent years, economic leaders have begun to recognize the significant risks posed by water scarcity and water quality declines. In response, governments are tightening water regulations in many growing regions, and investors and consumers alike are calling on global food and beverage companies to mitigate water risks in the food supply. Meanwhile, agricultural sustainability standards have experienced significant growth and have come to represent a key mechanism through which large multinational firms address their sustainability goals.

  • Alliance for Water Stewardship

    Through the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS), WWF works with global leaders in sustainable water management to promote the use of fresh water in a way that is socially, economically, and environmentally beneficial.

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