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IUCN Global Freshwater Initiative
(Summarized from Bergkamp, G. 1999. La UICN responde: La Iniciativa sobre Agua Dulce. In: Conservación Mundial 2. p. 21)

A variety of processes have led to excessive use of water resources, and the even greater demand projected for coming years is expected to pose a serious challenge to the functioning of freshwater ecosystems and maintenance of biodiversity.

Threats include the construction of dams, conversion of wetlands, introduction and invasion of exotic species and the contamination of large surface aquifers such as rivers, lakes, and even groundwater, that are vitally important for human consumption. Along with lowered quality and a reduction in the quantity of water available, valuable ecological services are also being lost, such as water purification, biodiversity maintenance, control of flows, and others. These benefits are largely unknown outside of academic circles, since little dissemination to citizens and resource users is occurring.

To address this problem, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) is developing a Global Freshwater Initiative aimed at better management of these ecosystems. This world-level initiative is carried out in three regions: Central America, Southern Africa, and South and South East Asia.

Currently IUCN is identifying priority areas and activities, and thus is calling for global and regional groups of experts to help provide guidelines for the initiative. There are many global and regional efforts already well underway in the discussions on Integrated Resource Management, such as the Global Water Partnership (GWP), the World Water Council (WWC) and the World Council on Dams (WCD.)

The IUCN initiative seeks to improve the capacity of members and partners in recognizing threats to freshwater resources and ecosystems, and in designing and implementing measures for their conservation and sustainable use.

The role of the initiative will be to bring institutions together concerning the issue of sustainable water use and catalyze innovative work in freshwater management and conservation. It will also focus on wetlands that are IUCN Secretariat work zones, and on activities relevant to members and commissions.

The three main objectives of the initiative are:

  1. To synthesize existing knowledge and use it for creating awareness in decision makers and water resource administrators regarding problems related to conservation and sustainable use of freshwater;
  2. In association with the IUCN Secretariat and members, prepare management instruments and build capacity in working with decision makers and water resource administrators, encouraging them to adopt new practices of sustainable freshwater use; and
  3. Implement actions at levels ranging from small sub-catchments to international river basins, to improve and facilitate cooperation among institutions involved in the conservation and wise use of freshwater resources.

The program will be based on actions for "Integrated Catchment Management" (ICM.) This process utilizes a two-way approach to integration: water and soil resources are managed in such a way that activities on dry land do not have adverse effects on aquatic resources and vice versa. It also involves bringing communities and government agencies together so they can manage and protect catchments.

In principle, the initiative will be carried out over a period of three years. IUCN has provided modest funding, and is searching for support from donor agencies and international cooperation.

In Central America the initiative will place more emphasis on growing threats to aquatic resources and the urgent need to define and implement strategies for their sustainable management.

Loss of regional ecosystems is mainly due to poor sanitation and inadequate treatment of effluents, causing lakes and rivers to become polluted. Deforestation is another factor, along with the degradation of farmland, which results in heavy loads of sediment. Another major problem is the drainage and conversion of wetlands, which greatly affects water purification capacity and the storage functions of riverine systems.

The Freshwater Initiative's main challenge is the development and implementation of integrated catchment management based on an ecosystem approach. This emphasizes natural resource planning and management intervention based on the capacities and limitations of ecosystems, rather than optimizing resource use in the short term. Although there are a number of actions being carried out in the region, there is no clear vision to orient activities as a whole toward integrated catchment management for freshwater ecosystems.

Ger Bergkamp, Water Resources Specialist
Coordinator of the IUCN Freshwater Initiative
Rue Mauverney 28 CH 1196
Gland Switzerland Tel: +41 22 9990262 Fax: +41 229990025
E-mail: [email protected]

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