Freshwater, an essential component for life that comes entirely from nature, is also one of the resources at higher risk. It is widely accepted that freshwater ecosystems, which include not only rivers, lakes, marshes and fens but also extensive rice fields and large deltas, provide a varied range of services to people, such as food, flood control and recreation opportunities, and cultural and spiritual values among many others (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). It also happens that freshwater ecosystems can be considered as biodiversity hotspots in their own right: they hold 9.5% of all known species, including a third of all vertebrates, even though they occupy less than 1% of the earth’s surface.

So having this in mind, the IUCN Freshwater Biodiversity Unit and the IUCN Centre for Mediterranean Cooperation directed an assessment of the socio-economic value of freshwater species for the northern Africa region (Juffe-Bignoli and Darwall, 2012). The aim of this study was to link IUCN Red List data on the extinction risk for freshwater species across northern Africa with information on their socioeconomic value, and to evaluate levels of dependence on wetland services in conjunction with the known threats faced by the species underpinning these services. For this work, we focused on a suite of wetland plants and all freshwater fish native to northern Africa which risk of extinction was assessed in a bigger project published by García et al. in 2010. The information was collated through a combination of literature survey and email correspondence alone.

Nevertheless, this report demonstrates that half of the freshwater fishes native to the region are of value to people and of these 35% are threatened. The main threats are water extraction, habitat loss and degradation, with the notable exception of the Critically Endangered European Eel (Anguilla anguilla) which is affected by a steep population decline due to a variety of factors which we explore in this report. In Egypt, at least 378,000 people depend directly on activities related to the harvesting and/or farming of freshwater fishes, activities that generated around USD 355.7 million in 2009. Regarding wetland plants, over a quarter are also of economic value to local people. These plants are mainly used for medicines, as food for people, as ornamentals, for animal feed, and in the production of handicrafts and construction materials. The report found that 70% of the species are collected from the wild and that 66% of these plants are Crop Wild Relatives, hence are of clear value to people providing the genetic base upon which many commercial crops depend. Read more results from the assessment.

Given the important role that aquatic plants and freshwater fish play in the lives of people in northern Africa, the protection and sustainable use of these resources must be taken into account in development plans through environmental impact assessments and integrated catchment management approaches. One way of doing this, is by encouraging and empowering local communities, whose livelihoods depend on these resources, to participate in conservation planning, and to develop or participate in sustainable harvesting and/or farming programmes and ecotourism. Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs), in many cases, are good examples of this happening for thousands of years.

The sustainable use of freshwater biodiversity and its resources is not just an engineering and biological problem. It is a social and political process too. Just a few weeks ago, 193 countries met at the CBD COP11 in India to discuss endlessly how to finance the conservation biodiversity, its sustainable use, and the equitable sharing of its genetic resources. When it came to freshwater the agreement was unanimous: the sustainable use and conservation of inland waters biodiversity is key, not only for human survival but also for sustaining all other ecosystems and species (two key documents presented here are (1) The economics of ecosystems and biodiversity: water and wetlands and (2) the Report of the expert group on maintaining the  ability of biodiversity to continue to support the water cycle). This was considered as a cross-cutting issue essential to be addressed if the world wants to achieve the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets agreed by all countries in 2010 through the CBD Strategic Plan for Biodiversity.  Its seems we have plan so it is now time to stop talking about what we all agree on and help countries to continue or start implementing projects and deliver results for sustainable use of freshwater ecosystems around the world.

For the northern African region, the next immediate step after this report was the organization of a two day expert meeting organised by the IUCN Centre for Mediterranean Cooperation on Mediterranean biodiversity and livelihoods in Tunisia held on 22-23 November* and in which members of SULI participated (more about this event).

Diego Juffe-Bignoli is IUCN Programme Officer in the Biodiversity Conservation Group

*Editor’s note: We plan to have a report on this meeting in the next issue of SULiNews.

Photo: Mint species trade in a local market in Marrakech, Morocco. Copyright: besopha.

IUCN Freshwater Biodiversity Unit and IUCN Centre for Mediterranean Cooperation.
García, N., Cuttelod, A. and Abdul Malak, D. (eds) (2010). The Status and Distribution of Freshwater Biodiversity in Northern Africa. Gland, Switzerland, Cambridge, UK and Malaga, Spain: IUCN.
Juffe-Bignoli D. and Darwall W.R.T (eds.) (2012). Assessment of the socio-economic value of freshwater species for the northern African region. Gland, Switzerland and Málaga, Spain: IUCN. IV + 84 pages.