How Europe Can Meet the Moment for Freshwater Biodiversity

With these key policy recommendations, the EU can step up protection for its waterways at a critical time.

Sheep graze on a green lush riverbank surrounded by forested hills on a sunny day.
The Blue Heart of Europe The Krupa River in Croatia winds through a limestone canyon, but pockets of lush pasture—actually small alluvial plains—support grazing livestock like sheep. © Ciril Jazbec
By Andras Krolopp, Senior Policy Advisor and Julia Boverhoff, Freshwater Policy Associate, Europe 

Water is the bloodstream of the biosphere. It is intrinsically connected to all processes on the planet—both human and non-human, terrestrial and aquatic, from animals and plants to microscopic creatures—and critical to the resilience of landscapes and thriving communities.

Covering approximately 1% of the Earth’s surface, freshwater sources like rivers, lakes and wetlands are home to 10% of all species and host more fish species than the world’s oceans.

The challenge

Due to multiple global climate and environmental crises, however, this all is at risk. Since 1970, 83% of freshwater species and 30% of freshwater ecosystems have been lost. Globally, wetlands are vanishing three times faster than forests

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These declines pose a threat not only to the many species that rely on these freshwater systems, but also to billions of people around the world who depend on rivers, lakes, and tributaries for food, water, and economic well-being.

Nowhere is the biodiversity crisis more acute than in freshwater ecosystems. This is true globally, but especially in Europe, where the decline in migratory freshwater fish species is among the sharpest on the planet.  

A large fish catches a smaller fish's tail in its mouth along a river bottom.
Too big to catch A pike catches a large perch (opposite, bottom) in a flooded granite quarry called Leštinka in the Czech Republic. © Viktor Vrbovsky/TNC Photo Contest 2021

While we are making progress globally in combatting biodiversity loss through terrestrial and marine policies and strategies, there is a growing concern that freshwater ecosystems are being left behind.

Very few examples exist globally of river systems that are protected entirely. In Europe and beyond, major rivers are fragmented, and—with hardly any free-flowing rivers remaining—pressure on nature continues to grow.

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The European Union has shown strong international environmental policy leadership for a long time, but existing policies and strategies aiming to protect nature – both habitats and species – are not yet sufficient to effectively halt biodiversity loss and tackle freshwater-specific problems.

Freshwater protection and restoration need to be approached in a new, holistic way, where national actions are as important as international cooperation to help protect shared basins.

A kingfisher with bright blue feathers flies off with a fish in its mouth amid airborne water droplets
Kingfisher in Scotland A kingfisher snatches a fish from the River Dee near Kirkudbright, Scotland, UK. © Fiona Betteridge /TNC Photo Contest 2018

Policies driving hope for freshwater

Historically, freshwater ecosystems were either forgotten in environmental policies or solely covered under terrestrial protection directives. But the tide is starting to turn as more and more, the voices pleading for freshwater protection are being heard. 

If implemented effectively, there are three major policy developments—both at global and European levels—that show that momentum is building to help bend the curve on freshwater biodiversity loss before it’s too late:

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  • The signing of this groundbreaking agreement at CBD COP-15 in December 2022 was a truly historic day for nature – and freshwater was no exception. The framework lays out a pathway for living in harmony with nature by 2050. Among vital goals to help close the $700 billion annual nature financing gap and ensuring that the benefits from genetic resources are more equitably shared, the 196 signatory countries have committed to “ensure that by 2030 at least 30% of areas of degraded terrestrial, inland water, and coastal and marine ecosystems are under effective restoration and effectively conserved and managed.” The fact that inland water is specifically mentioned is key to a new, freshwater-specific approach to environmental protection and restoration. To reach this CBD target, action on the ground needs to start happening now.

  • This is a key example of where the EU is showing strong international environmental policy leadership – paving the way for the framing and implementation of the Global Biodiversity Framework. Through the European Green Deal, launched by the Commission in December 2019, the EU has developed a package of policy initiatives, which aims to set the EU on the path to a green transition. Among them is the Biodiversity Strategy, endorsed by the EU at the end of 2020, which already committed the 27 Member States to the 30x30 protection target. The EU Biodiversity Strategy spells out protection and restoration targets, including freshwater. 

  • As an outcome of the Biodiversity Strategy, the European Commission proposed a new Nature Restoration Law, which will be the first European-wide law to set legally binding targets to restore nature. A key aspect of the proposal is the commitment to restore 25,000 km of rivers. If adopted by the Parliament and the Council, this would be an incredible milestone for freshwater policy -- a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reverse the biodiversity and climate crises by placing the EU’s degraded nature on a path to recovery. And considering the state that freshwater biodiversity is in, there is no time to wait.

Aerial of several river channels weaving and crossing each other over black soil in Iceland
Veins of the earth Water originating from glaciers traverses river channels on Iceland's South Coast in Iceland. © Agnieszka Wieczorek/TNC Photo Contest 2022

Key recommendations for European policymakers

As world leaders gather this week for the first UN Water Conference in nearly 50 years, we have an opportunity to align on key water outcomes that not only meet the aims of the Global Biodiversity Framework, but also reflect a new vision for valuing nature to build a better, more equitable future for both nature and people.

With the forthcoming Nature Restoration Law (NRL), EU policymakers can create a clear roadmap for action—continuing to set the pace in our fight to address global environmental challenges. Here’s what should be front of mind for European leaders in the weeks and months ahead:

  1. A holistic approach
    With many existing agreements now coming into effect, it is crucial that European policymakers focus not only on rapid implementation, but also coordination across the different multi-lateral commitments that have been made to improve freshwater ecosystems. These include those in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, EU Biodiversity Strategy, Convention on Migratory Species, and others.
  2. Rapid adoption of the NRL
    The proposed law should be adopted as planned before the end of this year to enable Member States to move to implementation. Swift adoption will send a strong signal to the global community on how the EU is taking its global commitments seriously and aims to enshrine ecosystem restoration targets in law. This could serve as inspiration for other countries to adopt similar ambitious policies on nature restoration and protection of biodiversity.
  3. A move to implementation 
    Implementation of the NRL should start as soon as possible, with Member States preparing their National Restoration Plans. These National Restoration Plans should prioritize actions for the most effective biodiversity outcomes and should take a “whole system approach.” Member States should work together on protecting freshwater ecosystems, while using a cross-border approach. Rivers do not stop at borders and our restoration approach should not stop there either.
  4. Effective financing 
    To meet the aims of the EU Biodiversity Strategy, it is essential that an effective financial system is put in place to mobilize resources in an expedited and predictable manner. Currently, there is no dedicated or earmarked financial support for this -- and available funding is scattered between various Directorate Generals’ budget lines. The EU should add a mechanism to the current multiannual financial framework to assist Member States with the preparation and implementation of National Restoration Plans. Such a system would further enable EU Member States, as well as partner countries, to coherently plan and finance measures to assure implementation across all legislation within the Green Deal and beyond.

Now is the time for the EU to show strong leadership and be an inspiration to the rest of the world.

This is the perfect opportunity for Europe to implement and promote effective, freshwater policy in order to protect not only all species relying on these freshwater systems, but also the billions of people around the world who depend on rivers, lakes, and tributaries for their well-being.

Once again, the EU could showcase their leadership in environmental policy and can provide valuable lessons learned, as well as technical and financial support to other countries.