Freshwater systems are a subset of Earth’s aquatic ecosystems including streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, springs and wetlands and they are important components of landscapes. Freshwater ecosystems are largely recognized for providing a variety of commodities and performing valuable services both ecologically and economically. They constitute a vital habitat that hosts a diversity of organisms that transform matter and energy into life, as well as living biomass that eventually becomes food for other aquatic organisms and provides nutrients and energy for terrestrial ecosystems. Freshwater ecosystems are also important drivers of a variety of socio-economic capitals among others: agriculture, commercial fisheries, energy production, industrial use, land value improvement, transportation, domestic use, leisure and recreational values, as well as inspirational values for artistic and spiritual renewal.
While seemingly abundant, only a minuscule amount (0.03%) of the total water on our planet is available as liquid freshwater at, or near the land surface. Sustainable management of this resource reflects its capacity to support biodiversity and underpin most aspects of human welfare. More specifically freshwater plays an important role in community livelihoods as testified by farmer communities using Akagera river for irrigation in Eastern province of Rwanda.
“Without the river, our children would die from hunger because most people in this area are farmers and our agriculture is mainly rain-fed; while the area is very arid, we use the river to irrigate our crops during long dry seasons. The production is mainly consumed, but a part of it can be sold at local market to generate income”. Said Theonest, a farmer and resident in Mitako Village/ KireheDistrict.
This importance is also felt by local cooperatives of farmers that carry out agricultural activities on consolidated lands along Akagera in Bugesera District. “We live from agriculture and it is a legacy from our ancestors. However, weather uncertainty that we are experiencing and which most of the time manifests short wet seasons, our agriculture could no longer secure livelihoods without an alternative for food production during long dry seasons. Having Akagera is a privilege as we access water for irrigation, thereby increased and diversified crop production”. Said Augustin Semisambi, President of KOIMIZANYA, maize growers cooperative operating in Rugarama Village, Musenyi sector of Bugesera District.
Globally, freshwater ecosystem management contributes to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals, with focus to: Zero hunger, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, climate action, life below water and life on land. However, the unsustainable management of these ecosystems leads to water scarcity and impaired quality of water that reduces its usability.
Diverse impacts including deaths, increased diseases and extinction of some flora and fauna species are attributed to polluted water and poor sanitation. Furthermore, extensive loss of economic productivity results each year from rain induced landslides, floods and torrents, as well as long and unpredictable droughts in developed and developing countries alike. Water is the critical natural resource which underpins ecological, social and economic activity. Over the long term, functionally intact and biologically complex freshwater ecosystems are more likely to retain the adaptive capacity to sustain provision of goods and services in the face of future environmental disruptions such as climate change. These ecosystem benefits are invaluable and often impossible to replace when aquatic systems are degraded. However, as demand rises and competition for this precious resource increases, or as strategies to store and restore this resource are ignored, all users across the planet can no longer guarantee uninterrupted access to water supplies as well as the water dependent benefits such as agriculture, energy and health. Finally the communities are the most victims of the emerging impacts of this degradation.
For this reason, sustainable management of freshwater ecosystems is vital to secure life and long-term economic well-being on Earth. This should be a multi-sectoral collaboration starting at roots level by reinforcing community integration in planning and implementation for sustainable management of these critical ecosystems.