Sold Down the River

Freshwater habitats around the world are becoming less and less hospitable to wildlife

Fish aren’t the only victims of overexploitation. As many as 10,000 water snakes are fished from Tonle Sap Lake each day. The water snakes mainly go to feed hungry crocodiles raised for commercial export; they substitute for fish, whose populations have declined. People are fishing down the food chain in the Mekong River Basin, as in so many freshwater and marine systems. After depleting the top predators and the largest species, fishermen turn their nets on successively smaller organisms.

The upshot of all those assaults is that freshwater organisms rank among the world’s most threatened species. Data on global trends are sparse, but what biologists do know paints a bleak picture of striking declines across taxa. Freshwater dragonflies, damselflies, mussels, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals—all are suffering. To prevent a wave of irreversible extinctions and ecosystem collapses, people need to take better care of fragile freshwater habitats.

Fortunately, there is much people can do. We can remove obsolete dams and design new ones that take into account natural patterns of river flow. We can reduce the need for massive water extractions by changing the way we grow our food and our cities; more efficient irrigation techniques and increased capture of rainwater, even in wet areas, would help. Conservation may be the best “new” source of water, particularly as climate change begins to shift water supplies globally. We can start to reduce our polluting ways by avoiding harmful chemicals in the first place. In the end, keeping more water in freshwater habitats and maintaining its quality must be a top global priority.

The future of the Mekong lies in the balance. Today, it remains one of the world’s least-degraded large rivers, but the primacy of economic growth threatens to tip the balance towards decline across the entire river system. Still, there are hopeful signs. Several transboundary initiatives are in the works among the six nations that share the Mekong, which should help balance the needs of people and wildlife. Then there’s the Mekong River Commission. Formed in the 1950s, the commission has moved away from its original focus on dams and irrigation projects toward more holistic management that takes environmental health into consideration. But the MRC is only as strong as the resolve of the governments it represents; China and Myanmar are not members, which may undermine its effectiveness in protecting the basin.

Internationally, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, with 155 signatory nations, guides conservation of 1,675 globally important wetland ecosystems. As with the Mekong River Commission, however, Ramsar’s strength rests on the decisions of its signatories: it has no enforcement mechanism. It should come as no surprise, then, that—as with conservation choices in general—most decision makers have consistently chosen short-term economic gain over the long-term health of aquatic systems.

Current societies value few things more than gold. But though one can survive, even live well, without gold, the same is not true for water. Ultimately, the true value of gold is reduced to this: it can buy you fresh, clean water—if there’s any for sale.

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