Improving the protection of freshwater ecosystems: a pilot project towards SDG 6.6.1

Healthy freshwater ecosystems are critical for sustainable development and possess a key role in climate adaptation. A successful pilot project implemented by GWP and Cap-Net UNDP, with the support of UNEP and UNDP, helped countries in fast-forwarding the restoration and protection of these ecosystems through capacity development, broad stakeholder engagement, and support to action planning.

The United Nations General Assembly recently declared access to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, a universal human right, reinforcing the value of healthy ecosystems. Freshwater ecosystems - including lakes, rivers, wetlands and groundwater - possess enormous biological, social, educational and economic values. They supply essential ecosystem services such as food, water, and energy provision to billions of people. Their importance is also enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with SDG target 6.6 aiming specifically ‘to protect and restore water-related ecosystems’. Unfortunately, freshwater ecosystems are increasingly under substantial threat driven by human activities, including pollution, over extraction, and flow alteration, and these issues are compounded by climate change. Decision makers thus need to utilise available information involving all concerned stakeholders to better understand these threats and respond appropriately.

Improving the protection of freshwater ecosystems in Argentina, Kazakhstan and Kenya: successful pilot project

From October 2020 to June 2022 the pilot project helped Argentina, Kazakhstan, and Kenya in protecting and restoring freshwater ecosystems through awareness raising activities, capacity development and multi-stakeholder action planning, with a focus on integration of environmental data into relevant decision-making processes.   

Overall, 250 professionals were trained on freshwater ecosystems based on a newly developed training manual and 130 decision makers attended awareness raising activities in the countries. The training also included an introduction to the SDG 6.6.1 Freshwater Ecosystems Explorer platform, which provides up-to-date, high-resolution geospatial data showing freshwater ecosystems change over time. “Policy- and decision-makers often don’t have enough information available to make an informed decision to improve the health of freshwater ecosystems. With the Freshwater Ecosystems Explorer, countries have an additional tool at their disposal to track and monitor freshwater ecosystems and take the necessary actions”, explains Stuart Crane, UN Environment Programme (UNEP) expert on freshwater ecosystems. More than half of the country actors that provided feedback on the project through a survey reported that the project improved their capacity and awareness of the benefit of environmental data integration in decision-making.

Building on these activities, and through a multi-stakeholder engagement process undertaken in close collaboration with mandated institutions, action plans were then prepared to protect and restore priority ecosystems, each focusing on a prioritised ecosystem. In Kenya, the action plan focuses on the Ewaso Ng’iro North River Basin, in Kazakhstan on Lake Balkash, and in Argentina on the Esquel-Percy ecosystem and the Marapa-San Francisco River Basin. The action plans build on an analysis of the current state of ecosystems and challenges faced, as well as strategic and policy frameworks in place. They identify the priority areas of focus for conserving and restoring they ecosystems and the related actions to be implemented. All the action plans enjoyed broad stakeholder validation and are expected to be implemented by national, basin and local stakeholders.

Highlights: setting the stage for positive change

The project set the base for positive change in the countries. About half of the key institutional actors and stakeholders surveyed at the end of the project, consider that integration of environmental data within relevant decision-making processes is improved and contributes to the protection, management and restoration of freshwater ecosystems.

  • In Argentina, increased political commitment to implement projects related to freshwater ecosystem protection and restoration was reported.
  • In Kazakhstan, government institutions are paying increased attention to integrating and improving data collection and monitoring for the management of freshwater ecosystems and have clarified roles and responsibilities among executive bodies on SDG indicator 6.6.1 related data.
  • In Kenya, the enhanced capacities and stakeholder mobilisation has even resulted in increased budget allocations by some county governments to finance protection and restoration of freshwater ecosystems.