Scientists are calling for a raft of urgent measures – including a dedicated Global Green Finance Fund – to help restore degraded freshwater lakes, at the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York today.

The call forms part of a White Paper produced by the World Water Quality Alliance (WWQA), which is convened by the United Nations Environment Programme.

The White Paper calls for the establishment of a Global Coalition to set the international agenda on lake restoration, to draw evidence from practitioners to feed into international policy through the UN, building on a recently adopted United Nations Environment Assembly resolution calling for all countries to protect, conserve, restore and ensure the sustainable use of lakes through their integrated management to safeguard society and nature. 

There are over 100 million freshwater lakes worldwide, making up just under 4% of the Earth’s surface that is not covered by ice. These lakes provide vital resources including food, drinking water, irrigation, energy production, navigation and recreation. They are also critical for global biodiversity, yet they contribute to the global decline in freshwater species loss estimated at 84% over the last fifty years.

The ‘Embedding Lakes into the Global Sustainability Agenda’ White Paper has been written by a taskforce convened under the Ecosystems workstream of the WWQA, led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and IHE Delft Institute for Water Education. It draws on a survey of practitioners of lake restoration from 63 countries, who were asked about the challenges they face in restoring lakes and what additional measures are needed.

The most common issue facing restoration practitioners globally is nutrient pollution – including phosphorus and nitrogen from agriculture and wastewater – which causes harmful algal blooms, disrupting drinking water supplies, and increasing emissions of methane to the atmosphere. Pollution from agriculture and wastewater is expected to increase globally in the future to meet growing food demands. 

Other challenges facing lakes include the effects of plastic pollution, industrial waste discharges, invasive species infestations, and habitat destruction. Climate change will make matters worse; algal blooms will increase with warming and drought as will oxygen depletion leading to dead zones.

White paper author, Professor Bryan Spears from the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology said: “This scientific assessment shows the many, and growing, pressures affecting lakes from human activity.  Long-term and remote monitoring systems to better understand lake health and provide early warning of deterioration are vital. Restoring lakes has an important role to play in reversing biodiversity decline and in supporting communities who rely upon them.” 

The White Paper identifies key solutions to enhancing lake restoration including mobilising policymakers, investment and public support for change and supporting communities in the protection and restoration of the ecosystems on which they rely. It presents four key actions for consideration at the UN Water Conference 2023:
1.    Build capacity in monitoring – this is critical to guide management, but resources to effectively monitor lakes are lacking in some countries
2.    Embed sustainable lake management within national policy – with countries drawing on the experience of others who already have these in place
3.    Foster green finance partnerships – including a Global Green Finance Fund for Lakes and increased funding for disaster response
4.    Raise global awareness of the benefits of change – including establishing a Global Coalition for Lakes which would coordinate action on lakes and connect a global set of practitioners and experts to the international policy community.

The authors of the White Paper suggest that the Global Green Finance Fund for Lakes could mirror the Global Fund for Coral Reefs, which has successfully catalysed nearly three billion US dollars from global public and private institutions to support low-income countries in protecting their coral reefs.

Co-author, Professor Ken Irvine from IHE Delft said: “There is currently no global policy specific to lake management, yet many drivers of ecosystem degradation are international in scope and require international leadership. Management of lakes as a resource for people almost universally neglects the biodiversity that they contain. This is why a global policy that integrates lake restoration with biodiversity and climate change is urgently needed.”

Co-author Dr Konstantina Katsanou, also from IHE Delft said: “Lakes and reservoirs are undervalued, understudied and often overlooked. Yet, they are of crucial importance for food security, the provision of clean water for drinking and irrigation, energy production, navigation, recreation and biodiversity. We know that recovery of lakes can be achieved through careful management of the causes of degradation, but that can take years to decades, so we need to act now.”

The White Paper highlights some of the major global ambitions that back the need for transformative global action to protect lakes, including the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and the Convention on Biological Diversity's (CBD) Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework adopted in December 2022. 

Nina Raasakka, from the Global Environmental Monitoring Systems of UNEP and Coordinator of the WWQA said, “Sustainable management of lakes is a critical element to addressing the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. This White Paper is an urgent call for all stakeholders to work together and build a common understanding of the threats and impacts facing lakes so as to restore and preserve these precious ecosystems that are being degraded at such an alarming rate worldwide.” 


The White Paper is available here: Embedding Lakes into the Global Sustainability Agenda | Zenodo

For interviews and further information, contact: Gill Ormrod, Senior External Communications Manager at UKCEH, gilorm@ceh.ac.uk or +44(0)7354 249062


Notes to editors:

Further details on the UN Water Side Event on Sustainable lake Management

The White Paper will be presented at the side event ‘From UNEA to the General Assembly: Sustainable Lake Management - a catalyst to accelerate global commitment to the Water Action Agenda’ taking place at the UN 2023 Water conference on Wednesday 22nd March. This side event is organized by the Government of Indonesia and moderated by UNEP. It seeks to facilitate collaboration between Member States and other key stakeholders in research, capacity-building and the sharing of knowledge, information and best practices, in order to build momentum towards sustainable lake management.

The Embedding Lakes into the Global Sustainability Agenda White Paper was prepared by the World Water Quality Alliance (WWQA) Ecosystems Workstream as part of the work of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in their implementation of UN Environment Assembly Resolution 3/10 on “Addressing water pollution to protect and restore water-related ecosystems” which was passed in 2017, and in support of the UN Environment Assembly Resolution 5/4 on ‘Sustainable Lake Management’ which was adopted in 2022.

The WWQA includes around 50 organisations (UN agencies, research, civil society, private sector) and is a voluntary, flexible and global, multi-stakeholder network that pools expertise on water quality science, social engagement, and technology innovation and advocates the central role of freshwater quality in achieving prosperity and sustainability. The WWQA Ecosystems Workstream is led by a core group from UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, Wageningen University & Research, United Nations Environment Programme, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, and the Norwegian Institute for Water Research.

About the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

The UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) is a centre for excellence in environmental science across water, land and air. Our 500+ scientists work to understand the environment, how it sustains life and the human impact on it – so that, together, people and nature can prosper. We have a long history of investigating, monitoring and modelling environmental change, and our science makes a positive difference in the world. UKCEH hosts the UK Lakes Portal documenting physical, biological and water quality condition across over 40,000 lakes. UKCEH holds more than 420 lake-years of data including on Loch Leven, Windermere and other lakes of the English Lake District. These programmes provide evidence on the effects of climate and land-use change on ecosystem degradation which is used to inform sustainable management programmes designed to enhance the linkages between nature and people across the world. 

About IHE Delft Institute for Water Education 

IHE Delft is the largest international graduate water education facility in the world and is based in Delft, the Netherlands. Since 1957 the Institute has provided water education and training to professionals from over 160 countries, the vast majority from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Numerous research and institutional strengthening projects are carried out in partnership to strengthen capacity in the water sector worldwide. Through our overarching work on capacity development, IHE Delft aims to make a tangible contribution to achieving all Sustainable Development Goals in which water is key. www.un-ihe.org

About UNEP 

Since its inception in 1972, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has been the global authority that sets the environmental agenda, promotes the coherent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development within the UN system and serves as an authoritative advocate for the global environment. UNEP’s mission is to provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.