Southern Africa’s freshwater species in firing line

Many freshwater fish, crabs, dragonflies, molluscs and aquatic plants are at risk of extinction in southern Africa if its rivers and lakes are not protected from developers, according to IUCN.

Fishing on Lake Kosi in St Lucia, South Africa

The study by the IUCN Species Programme, in collaboration with the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity and the South African National Biodiversity Institute, shows that seven percent of species are known to be regionally threatened or extinct. But this figure will skyrocket unless freshwater species conservation is considered in development planning.

These species provide food for local people and some of them, such as the mollucs, help purify the drinking water. The study shows that while 77 percent of species are not threatened with extinction, there is not enough information for the remaining 16 percent to determine their threat status.

“Here at the World Water Forum the trend is to think about water supply in terms of irrigation, hydropower and drinking water,” says William Darwall, Manager of IUCN’s Freshwater Biodiversity Unit. "People tend to forget about the species that live in the water but we can no longer afford to do this. We want developers to use the information on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species to work out how they can minimize the impact on freshwater species when they develop water resources.”

The results from the assessment of 1,279 freshwater species in southern Africa show that the more developed a country is, the more species are threatened with extinction. Of the 94 species threatened in southern Africa, 78 of these are found in South Africa, the most developed country in the region.

“We are in a unique position in Africa to avoid an extinction disaster,” says Julia Marton-Lefèvre, IUCN Director General. “Most developers have not taken freshwater species into consideration because they simply don’t have the information they need. We hope this study will change that and show that Africa’s water resources can be developed without causing thousands of extinctions.”

Three hotspots of species diversity have been highlighted in the report, including the area where the upper Zambezi meets the Kwando and Chobe rivers above Victoria Falls, the Komati and Crocodile river tributaries of the Incomati system in Mpumalanga, South Africa, and the Mbuluzi river basin, also in Mpumalanga, South Africa, and in Swaziland.

Many of southern Africa’s coastal drainages have sites which contain species that only occur in that area, including the Kunene and Kwanza rivers on the west coast of Angola, and the Rovuma and Pungwe and Buzi systems on the east coast of Mozambique.

“If we really want to save these species we must protect the rivers and lakes by looking at river basins as a whole,” says Mark Smith, Head of IUCN’s Water Programme. “We can’t just look at the parts that interest us economically or as natural areas. For our plans to work, we must manage them together, using all the tools we have to meet the needs of people and nature for water.”

The results of this report will be combined with similar studies currently being conducted in the rest of Africa. Case studies will be used to develop a series of Good Practice Guidelines to help developers and governments take freshwater species into consideration when planning water projects in Africa.

The full report is available here:

For more information or to set up interviews, please contact:
Sarah Horsley, IUCN Media Relations Officer, m +41 79 528 3486, e
Brian Thomson, IUCN Global Communications, m +41 79 721 8326 e

Work area: 
Red List
Freshwater species
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