The economic and societal benefits arising from the world's rivers, lakes, wetlands, and aquifers has been estimated at almost $58 trillion — around 60 percent of global GDP — by a major new report from WWF, which underscores the "irreplaceable" role these resources play in supporting food security and human health.
The new research provides what the conservation group describes as the first ever estimate of the economic value associated with water and freshwater ecosystems, warning that that these resources are under severe threat from pollution and unsustainable levels of water use in many regions.
The report puts the direct economic benefits, such as water consumption for households, irrigated agriculture and industry requirements, at a minimum of $7.5 trillion a year worldwide.
On top of that, the report estimates the "unseen" benefits of water and freshwater systems — such as water purification, enhancing soil health, storing carbon, and protecting communities from extreme floods and droughts — are up to seven times higher, totaling around $50 trillion annually.
Rivers alone support a third of global food production while also providing sediments that sustain mangroves.
But WWF warned these freshwater ecosystems are in a "downward spiral" that poses an ever-growing risk to the $58 trillion of annual economic value they provide, putting communities and industries at growing risk from extreme flooding, droughts, food shortages, wildfires and pollution.
Since 1970, the world has lost a third of its remaining wetlands, while freshwater wildlife populations have on average plummeted by 83 percent, contributing to growing numbers of people around the world facing water shortages and food insecurity, the report states.
Increasingly, rivers and lakes have dried up, pollution has increased and food sources such as freshwater fisheries on which communities rely for sustenance and incomes have dwindled, the report warns. Rivers alone support a third of global food production while also providing sediments that sustain mangroves and help protect deltas from rising sea levels, it points out.
One example highlighted in the report is the Danube basin in Europe, which alongside its tributaries has lost 80 percent of its floodplains. These floodplains are essential for flood and drought risk mitigation, groundwater, and water filtration, yet today just 16 percent of the basin's rivers are in a natural or near-natural state, the report warns.
Irene Lucius, regional conservation director for Central and Eastern Europe at WWF, said urgent action was needed to reverse the worsening state of global freshwater resources, as she called for the widespread adoption of more sustainable food production and industrial practices, as well as lower impact diets.
"Threats to river systems are threats to food security," she said. "Only by protecting and restoring rivers and their active and former floodplains, keeping water in the landscape with natural water retention measures can we hope to maintain the productivity of agricultural systems into the future.
"To do that, we must support nature-positive food production; maintain free-flowing rivers; apply sustainable land use practices better adapting to natural conditions and facilitating natural water retention; and adopt diets that reduce demand for products that strain freshwater resources."
Threats to river systems are threats to food security.
The report points in particular to the damage being caused to rivers and floodplains by unsustainable agricultural practices, such as over extraction of water for crop irrigation that reduces its availability for other uses — such as natural flows that support fisheries — and exacerbates water shortages.
It also highlights how intensive agriculture often takes place on former floodplains, which has reduced the purification, flood and drought risk capacities of the river ecosystems, while excessive fertilizer use has led to more polluted water courses, affecting surface and groundwaters while also harming wildlife and habitats.
Lucius urged food and agriculture firms to "drive positive change" by embracing more sustainable water and farming practices, in addition to taking steps to cut food waste, adopt science-based climate and nature goals, and invest in reforestation and forest conservation.
"Our current food production practices are not only harming the freshwater ecosystems, but are also identified as the primary contributors to biodiversity loss and climate change," she said. "They are causing land erosion and reducing the capacity of landscapes to deal with water scarcity and droughts. Yet the food industry can drive a positive change by embracing leading sustainability practices."
River pollution and the tensions between agriculture, development, and water quality have generated plenty of headlines in the UK over the past year, as the dire state of the country's rivers has been pushed up the agenda. But this week's report from WWF provides a timely reminder that this is part of a global crisis. If a challenge that can only be overcome if the economic value provided by rivers and freshwater ecosystems is properly recognized, and policymakers, businesses and consumers all take steps to urgently promote more sustainable and efficient agricultural practices.