Water and Biodiversity

This year the International Day for Biological Diversity celebrates "Water and Biodiversity". In view of the importance of water to sustainable development, and pressing problems with water availability and quality, the theme focuses on the solutions provided by biodiversity to meet water-related challenges. It was chosen to coincide with the International Year of Water Cooperation 2013.

Water is required to support biodiversity. Without sufficient water, stresses on species increase global biodiversity losses. In turn, biodiversity is critical to the maintenance of both the quality and quantity of water supplies and plays a vital but often under-acknowledged role in the water cycle.

  Biodiversity is not just another factor – it is as crucial to the living world as is cultural diversity. Both sources of diversity are linked, and the future that we want to build depends on our collective ability to safeguard them both.      

Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General, on the International Day for Biological Diversity 2013

The water cycle is influenced heavily by ecosystems and the life associated with them. Forests, grasslands, soils, wetlands all influence water. Vegetated land cover regulates water movement across land and water infiltration into soils. Wetlands in particular have particularly visible hydrological functions such as the ability to store water, thereby helping us to regulate floods. Biodiversity supports water and nutrient cycling in soils and therefore plants, including all food crops. Together these processes control land erosion and regulate water quality. These ecosystem services constitute a "natural water infrastructure", which offer cost-effective and sustainable solutions that can work in parallel with man-made infrastructures such as dams, pipelines, water treatment plants, irrigation systems, drainage networks and flood management embankments.

Natural Solutions for Water Security

Water is a renewable but a finite resource. It can be recycled but not replaced, and faces severe pressure from increasing demands to satisfy the needs of a growing population, rapid urbanization, pollution and climate change. Cooperation is essential to strike a balance between the different needs and priorities and share this precious resource equitably.

Ecosystems and their biodiversity should not be viewed as consumers of water, but as essential elements of natural infrastructure within water management.

© UNESCO/Volga-Akhtuba floodplain Natural park and Biosphere Reserve. Wetlands can clean and store water, and reduce flood risks.

Without ecosystems, and the complex biological relationships and processes that they support, the quantity and quality of global water resources would be severely compromised. The current paradigm, in which water and biodiversity are managed separately, is obsolete.

Freshwater, biodiversity, ecosystem function and human development are closely interconnected. Restoring the natural infrastructure, i.e. restoring degraded ecosystems and conserving their biodiversity, can be a key driver of economic growth and poverty reduction while contributing to climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction.

UNESCO's actions to protect biodiversity

This new approach was incorporated into the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity (2011-2020), which established clearly defined goals known as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. It is also reflected in the ongoing work towards an international agenda for Sustainable Development Post-2015.

UNESCO is contributing to these international efforts through its Biodiversity Initiative, which combines the Organization’s expertise in education, science and culture to provide policy advice and support Member States’ efforts towards implementing their biodiversity commitments. It is supporting the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) to strengthen dialogue between the scientific community, governments, and other stakeholders on biodiversity and ecosystem services.

UNESCO’s ecosystem and theme-specific networks provide valuable insights into sustainable development models and climate change mitigation and adaptation possibilities while facilitating research, capacity building and educational initiatives.

UNESCO and the Ramsar Convention on wetlands work together very closely to preserve important wetland ecosystems through UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention, its Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme and its International Hydrological Programme (IHP).

UN-Water has called upon UNESCO to lead the 2013 United Nations International Year on Water Cooperation, in view of the Organization’s mandate to pursue the goals of peace and sustainable development and its multi-dimensional mandate in the natural and social sciences, culture, education and communication and its significant and long-standing programmes contributing to the management of the world’s freshwater resources.

Did you know?

    • Movement through soil and vegetation accounts for 62% of annual globally renewable freshwater.
    • Forest and mountain ecosystems are associated with the largest amounts of freshwater. They provide renewable water supplies to at least 4 billion people, or two thirds of the global population.
    • Mountain ecosystems can contribute over 60% of the mean annual river discharge in some watersheds.
    • The clearance and removal of forest systems in mountains generally increases rates of erosion and reduces resilience to disasters downstream.
    • Natural infrastructure can play a vital role in increasing resilience to disasters, and its degradation is often a primary cause of disasters in the first place.
    • Water-related hazards account for 90% of all natural hazards, and their frequency and intensity are generally rising. Some 373 natural disasters killed more than 296,800 people in 2010 alone, affected nearly 208 million others and cost nearly US $110 billion.
    • Wetlands act as sponges, absorbing excess water in times of heavy rain and high tides and releasing water slowly during dry periods. The loss of these wetlands increases the risks of floods.
    • Wetlands are among the world’s most productive environments; they are cradles of biological diversity.


Celebration in the United Nations