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New WRI Report Reveals World's Freshwater Systems in Peril


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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 scarcity.

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 decades.

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 ( 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 ecosystems.

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:

Adlai J. Amor
Media Director
World Resources Institute
10 G Street
NE, Washington, DC 20002, USA
Tel: (+202) 729 7736
Fax: (+202) 729 7616

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