A report released on Oct. 21, 2000 by the World Resources
Institute (WRI) reveals that the world's freshwater systems are so
degraded that its ability to support human, plant and animal life
is greatly in peril. As a result, many freshwater species are facing
rapid population decline or extinction, and an increasing number of
people will face serious water shortages.
The report, "Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems
(PAGE): Freshwater Systems," says that while many regions of
the world have ample freshwater supplies, four out of every 10 people
currently live in river basins which are experiencing water scarcity.
By 2025, at least 3.5 billion people or nearly 50 percent of the world's
population will face water scarcity.
In addition, 29 of the world's river basins -- with
a projected population of 10 million each by 2025 -- will experience
Further analysis of existing freshwater studies reveals
that more than 20 percent of the world's known 10,000 freshwater fish
species have become extinct, been threatened, or endangered in recent
In the United States, which has the most comprehensive
data on freshwater species, 37 percent of freshwater fish species,
67 percent of mussels, 51 percent of crayfish and 40 percent of amphibians
are threatened or have become extinct.
"The findings are very disturbing," said
Jonathan Lash, WRI president during a press conference at the annual
meeting of the Society of Environmental Journalists. "We essentially
gave the world's freshwater systems a physical exam and found out
that it is more imperiled than the other ecosystems we studied."
According to the report, much of the degradation of
the world's freshwater systems is due to habitat destruction, the
construction of dams and canals, introduction of non-native species,
pollution, and over-exploitation.
The PAGE report estimates that dams, diversions or
canals fragment almost 60 percent of the world's largest 227 rivers.
The only remaining large free-flowing rivers in the world are found
in the tundra regions of North America and Russia, and in parts of
Africa and South America. About 40,000 large dams over 15 meters high
fragment the world's rivers.
Studies of the introduction of non-native fish in
Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand, reveal that 77
percent of them resulted in the drastic reduction or elimination of
native fish species. In North America, alone, 27 species and 13 subspecies
of native fish became extinct in the last century largely due to the
introduction of non-native fish.
The report said that water-borne diseases from fecal
pollution of surface waters continue to be a major cause of illness
in the Third World. While surface water quality has improved in the
United States and Western Europe, nutrient loading from agricultural
runoff continues to be a major problem.
Although rivers, lakes and wetlands contain only 0.01
percent of the world's freshwater, and occupy less than 1 percent
of the Earth's surface, the global value of freshwater services is
estimated in the trillions of dollars. "We need to value freshwater
ecosystems not only from the goods they produce, like fish and clams,
but also the services they give, like the filters and nurseries that
wetlands provide," said Carmen Revenga, one of the report's co-authors.
She added that in some countries, the growing concern
for species extinction, the maintenance of pristine habitats and the
need to maintain the other goods and services ecosystems provide,
are driving governments to restore and rehabilitate freshwater systems.
The PAGE report on freshwater systems (http://www.wri.org/wri/wr2000)
is the first of five technical reports that will be released in the
next six months. Other reports will cover agroecosystems, coastal
areas, forests, and grasslands. Taken together, these reports are
the first such comprehensive assessment of the state of the world's
They set the stage for the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment
(MEA) that will be launched next year by WRI, the United Nations Environment
Program, and other international agencies. The MEA is expected to
fill in the data gaps identified by the PAGE reports through the participation
of hundreds of the world's leading scientists who will be mobilized
for this $20 million, four-year effort.
"The challenge for the 21st century is to understand
the vulnerabilities and resilience of ecosystems so that we can find
ways to reconcile the demands of human development and the tolerances
of nature," said Lash.
The World Resources Institute (WRI) is a Washington,
DC-based center for policy research that provides objective information
and practical proposals for change to foster environmentally sound
and sustainable development. WRI works with institutions in more than
50 countries to bring the insights of scientific research, economic
analyses, and practical experience to political, business, and non-governmental
organizations around the world. For more information, visit WRI's
Website at: http://www.wri.org/wri/media/
Adlai J. Amor
World Resources Institute
10 G Street
NE, Washington, DC 20002, USA
Tel: (+202) 729 7736
Fax: (+202) 729 7616