Safeguarding Eastern Africa’s freshwater biodiversity by removing the information bottleneck

IUCN - The World Conservation Union, Gland, Switzerland (22.04.2005) - The inland waters of Eastern Africa are home to a wide variety of plants and animals such as fish, crabs, and snails that are critical for food and livelihoods. But decision makers rarely consider species conservation when planning water development projects and serious damage is being caused to these fragile ecosystems.

The problem is partly due to a lack of readily available information on the status and distribution of inland freshwater species. In response, IUCN’s Species Programme and Species Survival Commission (SSC) are conducting an Africa-wide study of freshwater biodiversity and making the information widely available to those who can act on it. This information will also act as a baseline and establish indicators to monitor change.

The results of the first regional assessment – for Eastern Africa - are now available, published as a report The Status and Distribution of Freshwater Biodiversity in Eastern Africa available online, with the data on CD-ROM. This region suffers from water shortages, a high dependence on freshwater biodiversity products, and until now, widely dispersed, largely inaccessible, information on freshwater biological diversity.


Goods and services derived from inland waters (such as food and drinking water), water filtration and flood control have an estimated global value of several trillion US dollars. The importance of freshwater ecosystems in Eastern Africa for people’s well-being and livelihoods cannot be overstated. In Malawi, 70% of dietary animal protein is derived from fisheries and Lake Victoria’s fisheries provide protein for over 8 million people.

However, inland freshwater ecosystems, especially wetlands, have long been considered a wasteful use of land and have received little protection. Rates of freshwater species loss have, in some cases, been estimated at five times greater than those seen in other ecosystems.

Global development objectives focus on the world’s freshwater supply crisis, and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) aim to halve the number of people without access to safe drinking water and sanitation by the year 2015. In Africa alone, access to water supply needs to be extended to an additional 350 million people and sanitation to 363 million people.

The infrastructure needed for improved water supply, irrigation and hydroelectric power is set to cause further, large-scale damage to freshwater Fishing dam in a river in Mozambique - photo courtesy of W. Darwall/IUCNecosystems unless biodiversity data is made available at the planning stage. This data can be used to help minimise developmental impacts and promote the provision of appropriate mitigation measures. Rural livelihoods and food security for many people dependent on wetland products will be protected through this increased capacity for effective management and wise use of inland waters.

For the Eastern Africa study, information was gathered on more than 1,600 species and subspecies of freshwater fish, molluscs, dragonflies and crabs from Burundi, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, with distribution maps produced for most species.

It found that 82% of fish and 74% of molluscs are found only in this region which makes their conservation all the more important. Species diversity is also high with the major centres of diversity being the African Great Lakes of Malawi/Nyassa/Niassa, Tanganyika and Victoria, and in the Eastern Arc Mountain Range.


Habitat loss and degradation particularly from deforestation and eutrophication, and the introduction of alien species are the main threats, with threatened species concentrated in the African Great Lakes and several east coast river drainages.

A series of “Best Practice Guidelines” to guide policy makers in integrating biodiversity information within the development process is being produced. The entire project is being coordinated by IUCN Species Programme’s Freshwater Biodiversity Assessment Programme.

The project has been carried out with financial support from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (DGIS) under the Partners for Wise Use of Wetlands Programme, managed by Wetlands International. Co-funding was provided by the IUCN Water and Nature Initiative (WANI).

The Status and Distribution of Freshwater Biodiversity in Eastern Africa is available online here (1 MB).

For more information contact:

Andrew McMullin, IUCN Species Programme Communications Officers; Tel: +41 (0)22 999 0153; Email:

Work area: 
Freshwater species
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