Key freshwater issues

The world's water resources are at risk from a number of threats...

Cracked soil and blue sky, Ilha do Caju, Brazil

Climate change

Rising temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns caused by climate change will have serious and unpredictable impacts on our water resources.

These are likely to include changes in water availability, more frequent weather extremes like droughts and floods, deterioration of water quality, and more variable and seasonal river flows.

Exactly what changes will happen is still uncertain, so we need to be able to cope with many different scenarios. Freshwater ecosystems are more resilient to climate change if they’re healthy, so it’s crucial that we step up our work to restore and protect them.

China Energy hydropower station Taipingyi, daming the Min river.Sichuan Province, China.

Infrastructure

Water infrastructure is one of the major causes of freshwater ecosystem degradation.

It includes: dams, reservoirs, equipment for generating hydroelectricity,  canals, pumps that transport water to homes and fields,  levees and dykes for flood defence. 

There are over 45,000 large dams in the world. Hundreds more are planned or under construction.

While water infrastructure does benefit society in many ways, big engineering schemes can cause irreparable ecological damage, harming habitats, fragmenting rivers systems, and
altering their natural flows.

Pollution in the Ganges River, India

Pollution

Water pollution is on the rise all over the world. Much of it is down to human activities - including run-off from agriculture and mining, atmospheric emissions and industrial and domestic waste water.

The pollution of the world’s rivers, lakes and wetlands has a huge impact on the health of people, plants and animals. In many places, there are so many pollutants that rivers can’t dilute them, leaving river systems seriously degraded.

Rivers filled with waste water become centres for diseases, cut the amount of safe water available for people to drink and wash, and cost a lot to clean up.

Soyabean farm, Goiás, Brazil

Over-use

The amount of fresh water on Earth is finite, but our demand for water keeps growing.

In many parts of the world people are already using too much water for nature to cope - some of the world’s great rivers no longer even reach the sea. Over-harvesting of fish and other animals and plants is another serious problem.

Our freshwater ecosystems are in danger of becoming unable to provide people with many vital goods and services.

Pressures on water resources will only intensify as the world’s population swells to a projected nine billion people by 2050. Living standards will also rise - along with demand for food, energy and industrial output. This will make protecting rivers even more challenging.

Zhang Shenyuan works with WWF monitoring fishing within the wetland.

Governance

Poor water governance - locally, nationally and globally - is a major challenge in many places where we work.

Often the laws, policies and institutions meant to protect and manage water aren’t strong enough. Sometimes there isn’t enough money, or the necessary technology.

This means resources aren’t managed well - and freshwater habitats and species aren’t protected.

Cotton factory, Faisalabad, Pakistan.

Agriculture

Of all human activities, agriculture has the biggest impact on the environment .

Many wetlands are destroyed as they’re drained to make way for farmland. Crop and livestock production also uses a massive amount of water.

Pesticides and fertilisers are a problem too. They pollute and damage rivers, lakes and wetlands, poisoning fish and other freshwater species.

Around 70% of freshwater used worldwide is for agriculture - and that rises to as much as 90% in some countries like India and Pakistan.

Heavy industry and a coal factory at Resende on the Paraiaba South River, Brazil

Water footprints

A water footprint measures the total water used to produce goods and services that an individual, business or nation uses.

For example, to produce 1kg of beef, you need 10-20,000 litres of water. The average annual water footprint per person in the UK is 1,695 cubic metres.

The impact a water footprint has depends on where the water is taken from and when. If it comes from a place where water is already scarce, the consequences for freshwater habitats, species and livelihoods can be severe.

We’re pioneering partnerships with businesses to assess and reduce their water footprints.

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