1.a - What is freshwater ?

Freshwater can be defined as water with less than 0.5 parts per thousand of dissolved salts. (Seawater or Brine has more than 50 parts per thousand). The ultimate source of fresh water is rain and snow.

Freshwater provides water for drinking, sanitation, agriculture, transport, electricity generation and recreation. It also creates habitats for a diverse range of animals and plants. We cannot live without freshwater.

Freshwater systems are the rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, groundwater, cave water, springs, floodplains, and wetlands (bogs, marshes, and swamps). Only 3% of the water on Earth is freshwater in nature, and about 2/3 of this is frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps. Most of the rest is underground and only 0.3% is surface water. Freshwater lakes contain 7/8 of this fresh surface water. Only a small amount in rivers. The atmosphere contains 0.04% water.

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Map showing drainage basins for the major oceans and seas

1.b - The richness and value of wetlands

Wetlands are home to some of the richest biodiversity on Earth. They are host to a spectacular array of wildlife ranging from kingfishers to caimans, herons to hippos, and an abundance of rare plantlife.

They are found all over the world from the equatorial tropics to the frozen plains of Siberia and are as crucial to the planet's well-being as any other finely balanced part of nature.

Wetlands vary enormous in size and character. They can range from a small neighbourhood pond to lakes, bogs, marshes, rivers, desert oases, all the way to the vast, 10-million-hectare Canadian Arctic bays, or the largest wetland in the world, the Pantanal in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, that is three times the size of Ireland.

Big or small, north or south, the function of wetlands is much the same: they provide humans with fuel, food, recreation and employment; they support an immense variety of wildlife that would otherwise become extinct; and they protect millions of people from the disastrous consequences of flooding.
Between 300 and 400 million people live close to - and depend on - wetlands. The world cannot do without them.

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Water lily field Nymphaea candida Unteres Odertal National Park Germany

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Global distribution of wetlands map

1.c - Status, stakes and losses

Freshwater Status

  • Oceans cover around 70% of the earth's surface and account for 97% of its water
  • Only 3% of all water on earth is freshwater
  • Most of this freshwater is locked away in the form of ice caps and glaciers located in the polar regions - though maybe not for much longer, especially with the way climate change is taking hold.
  • It won't change the fact that only about 1% of all water found on this planet is easily accessible for human use.

What's at stake

  • 1.1 billion people lack access to water and 2.6 billion lack adequate sanitation services; most of these billions are in the poorest countries.
  • An estimated 80% of people without access to an improved drinking water source live in sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Asia and Southern Asia.
  • In 2005, 1.6 million children under age 5 died from the consequences of unsafe water and inadequate hygiene. That's an average of 4500 everyday.
  • It has been estimated that every individual needs between 20 to 50 litres of water free from harmful contaminants each and everyday.
  • Sanitation coverage in developing countries is only half that of the developed world (49% as compared to 98%).
  • The vast majority of freshwater is used in agriculture
  • Agriculture claims 70% of all the freshwater used by humans - with rice, cotton and sugar among the thirstiest crops of all.
  • In fact it takes 3,000 to 5,000 litres of water to grow a kilo of rice
  • Population growth alone will push a further estimate 17 countries, with a projected population of 2.1 billion, into water-short categories within the next 30 years.
  • By the year 2025, 48 countries will be affected by water stress or scarcity - affecting around 35% of the projected global population in that year.

What we're loosing

  • On average freshwater species populations fell by about 50% between 1970 and 2000, representing a sharper decline than measured in either terrestrial or marine biomes.
  • Since 1900, more than 50% of the world’s wetlands have disappeared.
  • In many parts of the world, 30 to 40% of our fresh water goes unaccounted for due to water leakages in pipes and canals and illegal tapping.

What we're damming

  • Dams and other infrastructure have caused the fragmentation of 60% of the large river systems in the world.
  • Only 64 of the world’s 177 large rivers (1,000km and longer) remain free-flowing, unimpeded by dams or other barriers.
  • There are more than 45,000 large dams in over 150 countries
  • About 1500 are currently under construction.
  • Some 40 to 80 million people have been displaced by dams worldwide
  • (But not all dams are bad, it depends how and where they are built)

What it's worth

  • The average value of a wetland for recreation, flood control and storm buffering is $492 and $464 per hectare per year respectively.
  • Restoration of the Florida Everglades will cost an estimated $7.8 billion over 38 years.

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Map showing areas in the world suffering from physical or economic water scarcity

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Where have all our (free flowing) rivers gone

1.d - People and freshwater

Human civilization was born on a river bank. And for thousands of years, the relationship was a relatively benign one.

However, in the last 50 years, we have altered ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any other period in history. Rapid population growth, economic development and industrialization have led to the unprecedented transformation of freshwater ecosystems and consequent biodiversity loss.

Today, 41% of the world’s population lives in river basins under water stress. And the threats to freshwater ecosystems are immense. More than 20% of the world’s 10,000 freshwater species have become extinct, threatened or endangered in recent decades.

Freshwater environments tend to have the highest proportion of species threatened with extinction. Now, the use of capture fisheries and freshwater is well beyond levels that can be sustained at current, much less future demands. Physical alteration, habitat loss and degradation, water extraction, over-exploitation, pollution and the introduction of invasive species threaten the planet’s freshwater ecosystems and their associated biological resources.

Although there is increasing concern for the maintenance of freshwater biodiversity and the goods and services it provides, the demand for water itself is rapidly increasing as well. Thus there is an ever increasing need and urgency for improved management of freshwater ecosystems.

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Une ruelle du village de So Tchankwe Lac Nokoué Bénin