Why we need The Freshwater Challenge at COP28

by Niharika Iyengar, Wetlands International, with comments from James Dalton, IUCN and Lis Bernhardt, UNEP

12 Dec 2023 by The Water Diplomat

Freshwater Challenge

Water is life. Unfortunately, in the “era of global boiling”, water is also one of the hardest hit natural resources of a changing climate, exacerbated by drainage, diversion or pollution of water bodies as byproducts of development.

Rivers, lakes, and wetlands including peatlands are on the frontlines of the climate crisis. They are essential parts of earth’s natural carbon cycle and crucial to helping us adapt but also to mitigating climate change. Peatlands, for example, though only covering about 3% of our planet’s land, store approximately twice the amount of carbon of all the world’s forests combined. Along shallow coastal waters, unassuming seagrass meadows are estimated to be up to 40 times more efficient at capturing organic carbon than land forests. Conversely, the loss and degradation of wetlands releases stored soil carbon. Around 4% of anthropogenic emissions currently come from degraded peatlands alone, equal to the emissions of the aerospace and shipping industries combined.

These freshwater ecosystems also supply nearly all of the world’s fresh water and play a crucial role in water purification, water storage, flood control, and groundwater recharge. Physical, biological, and chemical processes (through sedimentation, microorganisms, and sunlight) in rivers help filter pollutants from water. Lakes act as natural reservoirs, storing water from various sources such as rivers, streams, precipitation. Peatlands and other wetlands, on the other hand, act like buffers – absorbing excess water during floods, and releasing it slowly during droughts.

In fact, wetlands are so central to the water cycle on earth that a world without wetlands would be a world without fresh water.

Their crucial role for climate adaptation and mitigation has been recognized across international frameworks and conventions.

But current approaches to water are not helping countries achieve their targets on climate, nature, or sustainable development. The protection and restoration of wetland ecosystems are not adequately integrated into national policy and legislation across sectors. As a result, rivers, lakes, and other wetlands are still undervalued and overlooked, and their rapid loss (faster than other ecosystems, along with their huge biodiversity, is exacerbating the at times, catastrophic impacts of climate change.

World leaders gather this week at UNFCCC COP28 in Dubai, where, earlier this year, the Presidency announced its intention to prioritise water in the climate agenda.

The Freshwater Challenge - to which Wetlands International is a Core Partner along with WWF, IUCN, TNC, UNEP, Ramsar Convention and others - is the largest river and wetland restoration initiative in history. Launched by Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Gabon, Mexico, and Zambia at the UN 2023 Water Conference as part of the Water Action Agenda, it aims to restore 300,000 km of degraded rivers and 350 million hectares of degraded wetlands by 2030 (about 30 percent of degraded wetlands), as well as conserve intact freshwater ecosystems.

To this end the Freshwater Challenge has been chosen as one of the official Water Outcomes of COP28.  [Link to FWC video]

The Freshwater Challenge builds upon existing water-related initiatives and is a way to accelerate and align action to deliver commitments on climate, biodiversity, water, and sustainable development already made. Governments form the membership, and all UN countries are encouraged to join the Freshwater Challenge.

Wetlands International is proud to support a Ministerial Roundtable on the protection and restoration of freshwater ecosystems at COP28.

Research has shown that nature-based solutions can provide over one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed to stabilize warming to below 2 °C by 2030 and there is a growing inclusion of coastal and marine ecosystems in climate strategies. What we need now is an equal focus on freshwater ecosystems – rivers, lakes, peatlands, and other wetlands – and rapid scaling up of these actions with the active support of all actors involved in water-related activities across sectors – from agriculture and infrastructure to finance and energy, from high-level policy reforms to local grassroots projects.

After the conclusion of the first Global Stocktake, countries should prioritise the inclusion of ambitious wetland actions in their Nationally Determined Contributions and National Action Plans for the years to come. Only through collective national leadership and political momentum will we be able to ensure a water-resilient future. We simply cannot afford inaction.