Water Pollution and Biodiversity: The Threats to Our Aquatic Ecosystems

Water Pollution and Biodiversity: The Threats to Our Aquatic Ecosystems

Water is life and is essential to all ecosystems. Healthy ecosystems provide balanced communities of species and adequate livelihoods. Rich and diverse livelihoods play an essential role in our well-being and the survival of the poor. Currently, about 1.9 million species have been described, and a million more are still to be discovered.

Our food, our health and our livelihoods depend on biodiversity. Food resources from agriculture or fisheries, the diversity of medicinal herbs, water-consuming industries or tourism activities unfolding near lakes and rivers point to the need for water resources for nature and humans. In addition, nature plays the role of regulating and purifying water resources, thus contributing to the improvement of water availability and quality.

What Is Biodiversity

Biological diversity (biodiversity) is the variety of all living things on Earth, from genes to ecosystems. It is based on species diversity. It includes millions of species of animals, plants and microorganisms living on our planet. However, biodiversity also encompasses the totality of natural ecosystems that are composed of these species. Thus, biodiversity should be understood as the diversity of organisms and their natural combinations. On the basis of biodiversity, the structural and functional organization of the biosphere and its constituent ecosystems is created, which determines their stability and resistance to external influences.

Types of Biodiversity

There are three main types of biodiversity:

  • Genetic, reflecting intraspecific diversity and due to variability among individuals;
  • species diversity, reflecting the diversity of living organisms (plants, animals, fungi and microorganisms);
  • ecosystem diversity, encompassing differences between ecosystem types, habitats and ecological processes. Ecosystem diversity is marked not only by structural and functional components, but also by scale – from biocenosis to biosphere.

All types of biological diversity are interrelated: genetic diversity ensures species diversity; ecosystem and landscape diversity creates conditions for the formation of new species; increasing species diversity increases the overall genetic potential of living organisms in the biosphere. Each species contributes to diversity, and from this perspective there are no useless or harmful species.

What Acts Protect Biodiversity

The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (1992), to which 190 countries have acceded, aims to protect and conserve diverse animal and plant species and their habitats. The Convention obliges States to conserve biodiversity, ensure its sustainable development and provides for the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources. Its Cartagena Protocol, which entered into force in 2003, aimed at ensuring the safe use of genetically modified organisms, has now been signed by 143 countries.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, adopted in 1973 and implemented by UNEP, protects endangered species. The 172 States parties to the Convention meet periodically to update the list of plant and animal species or products of plant and animal origin, such as ivory, that are to be protected by the imposition of quotas or a total ban. The 1979 Bonn Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals and a number of related agreements aim to conserve wild animals migrating by land, water and air and their habitats. 104 States are Parties to this Convention.

UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program works to develop, within the natural and social sciences, a framework for the sustainable use and conservation of biological diversity and to improve the way people relate to the environment worldwide. The programme encourages interdisciplinary research, with a demonstration phase and training using biosphere reserves as living laboratories for the study of sustainable development.

What Threatens the Balance Between Water and Nature?

Population growth, increasing consumption, infrastructure development, land conversion, poor land use and widespread use of pollutants all threaten the functions of ecosystems that produce freshwater resources. Ecosystems are evolving too slowly to adapt to rapid and abrupt changes and can no longer fulfill their role of purification and regulation.


With increasing urbanization and industrialization, the quality of rivers, lakes and aquifers may be seriously degraded. This phenomenon has accelerated since the 70’s due to the increase in domestic and industrial waste. With the available water treatment systems it is sometimes impossible to remove some toxic particles. Surface and groundwater are at risk of becoming unsuitable for human consumption and ecosystems.

Biodiversity Under Threat

Today, more and more species and natural environments are disappearing. According to the Red List of Threatened Species (2004), a total of 15,589 plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, in almost all cases as a result of human activities. Since the beginning of the century, 50% of the wetlands have disappeared. Since the 1990s, 19.4 million hectares have been cleared annually.

Water Scarcity

The depletion of water resources creates tensions between water users and sometimes between states and countries. Each country wants to maintain sovereignty over its resources and maximize their storage and use. Meanwhile, water scarcity has already affected one third of the world’s population (Global Water Vision)

Flood And Drought Risk

Degradation of ecosystems, especially wetlands and upper watersheds, reduces their role in mitigating floods and droughts.

Improving Water Resources Management as a Response to Threats

The complex range of interrelated issues and challenges, requires the development of an adequate response system for improving global water governance. Improving global water governance, as a set of interacting and interdependent measures, should include a range of different activities, including individual commitments to change the way we think and live, national measures, regional cooperation and global action in response to the water crisis. Water governance must serve as an integrated mechanism for confronting threats.

Water governance as “the range of political, social, economic and administrative systems that work on the ground to develop and manage water resources and provide water services at different levels of society” (GWP, 2002) should be based on an integrated approach and ensure that both internal and external threats are contained (reduced). Thus, a water governance system, in particular, must be based on strong political will and include:

  • A strong and enforceable legal framework that guarantees a clear system of water rights at different levels, protection of ecosystems; that is not only expressed in words, but also well regulated and monitored;
  • an institutional framework that includes stakeholder participation, improved coordination as well as public control, strict interconnection of responsibilities and functions at different levels of the water hierarchy;
  • financial resources to ensure sustainable work in management, and a user-oriented system of penalties and incentives for water resources management;
  • appropriate management tools and methods, including an information system;
  • a system of water education and ethics that will train future generations to respect water.

A review of the world water situation shows that the current global water management is not satisfactory to adequately address water problems. The challenges for future global water governance can be summarized as follows:

  • Lack of political will at the highest level and lack of charisma required for water leadership at various levels and in various areas;
  • lack of morality in global water governance (e.g. political and economic interests outweigh the social, environmental and cultural values of water );
  • lack of legal and institutional capacity;
  • Lack of professional competence to ensure wise water management (e.g. lack of integration, knowledge, science and long-term vision);
  • Lack of understanding of the complexity and vulnerability of the water system to external influences, especially climate change and, as a result, lack of long-term vision and planning.
  • Lack of democracy, in terms of public participation, transparency and accountability.

Problems of Combating Threats to Water Resources

Individual governments and their respective authorities are still at the forefront of combating non-compliance with water security requirements. However, water complexity and security challenges seem to depend on many other non-State actors, such as intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, civil society, private corporations, experts, etc., both within and outside States. Greater emphasis should be placed on improving coordination between different levels of the water hierarchy, as the largest water losses occur at the boundaries of their jurisdictions.

Most often, water problems are seen in terms of local solutions or transboundary cooperation between states in the basin, rather than as a threat to peace and security. This is true in many respects, but the preconception that all water problems can be solved within states is debatable.

The first problem is that states are often unable (or unwilling) to address vulnerability at the national level, and therefore require assistance from states with greater capacity, as partners, or the international community to build their resilience, institutional capacity to ‘cope with shocks and change’. Therefore, there is a need to enhance the capacity of states to effectively deter and counter threats, and to cope with change.

The second challenge is the transnational impact of globalization, where no state can make itself invulnerable to today’s threats. Therefore, the issue is not to diminish the importance of local, national or transboundary measures, but rather to emphasize the interdependence on a global scale of these actions. Although in some respects regional efforts supported by international organizations seem more successful than global programmes, there is also a need for a global response to the water crisis.

Security Measures for Global Water Governance

Drawing attention to water as a non-military issue, but through the security level, can be a way to raise the status of water on the global agenda, and to ensure the protection of water as a vulnerable resource in itself, and of vulnerable populations in relation to water use and the chain of command at various levels. Security measures of global water governance can be focused on large-scale and high-level actions by the global community, with special attention to emergencies and long-term solutions.

In this way, security requirements can bring new forces and means to global water management, including:

  • Signaling the need for urgent action. This will be a warning to the world community that even now, when there is no global water shortage, millions of people and ecosystems lack physical or economic access to water. The situation will worsen as a result of population growth, climate change, urbanization, and continued mismanagement and neglect of water.
  • Emphasis on preventive measures. The security system takes preventive action seriously (UN, 2004).
  • Long-term vision. The security system is likely to be oriented more towards long-term solutions. The focus will be on developing scenarios that clarify how and where improved global water governance can affect water resources and service delivery, and through this contribute to peace and security.
  • A holistic approach and joint response. “Every threat to international security today increases the risk of other threats … Poverty, infectious disease, environmental degradation and war compound each other in a deadly cycle’ (UN, 2004). Security requirements could “harmonize” coping approaches from current threats such as the water crisis and climate change. The security implications of climate change were already discussed by the Security Council in 2007.2 Therefore, the climate change debate could be an important starting point for improving global water governance and generate even more momentum. In addition, global water governance can benefit from the cooperative response to the threat offered by the collective security system.

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