Fresh Water
Cultural Services

 Safeguarding Fresh Water

Aerial view of Tamul Waterfall, Mexico. © Patricio Robles Gil/Sierra Madre/Minden Pictures
We must better understand, manage and value our freshwater ecosystems, linking them across large watersheds.
Fresh water is essential for life
Freshwater Facts see all
  • Agriculture uses a huge amount of water, more than 70 percent of available surface water each year.
  • Nearly 40 percent of the rivers in the U.S. are too polluted for fishing and swimming.
  • Nutrient runoff from agriculture has created algal blooms that deplete oxygen from the water and result in dead zones.
  • Nearly every major river in the world has been dammed, altering natural freshwater flows, cutting off migration routes and depleting fisheries downstream.
  • We have already lost more than half of our planet's wetlands and an estimated 30 percent of freshwater species.
  • Sixty-nine percent of river catchments, responsible for the capture and provision of our freshwater supply, remain unprotected — putting more than two-thirds of the source areas of our rivers at risk.
  • Declines in native species and changes in freshwater food webs have been estimated to exceed US $100 million in lost income revenues.
  • In the next few decades, more than half of the world's people are expected to live with severe water scarcity.
  • Climate change, a growing global population, and increasing demands on water due to higher standards of living threaten to further burden our planet's freshwater systems.

CI has designated freshwater security as one of our six main initiatives.
Learn more about CI's other core initiatives »

Yet, merely 3 percent of the water on Earth is fresh — and most of that is locked up in glaciers or deep underground. Imagine all of the world's water — oceans, rivers, lakes, glaciers — was represented by something the size of a standard globe; its fresh water would be just a marble-sized drop.

Fresh water also harbors the greatest concentration of life on Earth — greater than either terrestrial or marine biomes. Though it covers less than a fraction of 1 percent of the Earth's surface, fresh water provides habitat for more than 10 percent of known animals and about one-third of all known vertebrate species. And, more than 40 percent of all fish species are found in fresh water — even though it is, relatively speaking, a drop in the bucket.

The health and abundance of these species is a crucial indicator of the health of freshwater ecosystems. These ecosystems, in turn, play an important role in moderating the location, distribution, and timing of freshwater flows, ensuring that we receive a multitude of benefits and services.

Americans consume 99 gallons of water daily. And one out of six gallons served by U.S. water utilities finds its way back to the ground, leaking out of pipes or otherwise wasted. We protect only 35 percent of the upland areas that secure delivery of freshwater services downstream.

An ever-worsening water crisis demands that we respond with combined water efficiency and ecosystem management solutions to maintain freshwater species and services. Failure is simply not an option — at the current rate, we will degrade the remaining 11 percent of ecosystems that provide us with fresh water services by 2050.

Freshwater Ecosystem Services

  • drinking water
  • water for bathing/sanitation
  • water for food production
  • hydroelectric power generation
  • water purification and waste removal
  • nutrient cycling
  • transportation
  • recreation
  • flood control
  • climate regulation

How is CI contributing?

Conservation International (CI) strives to create a fundamental shift in how we manage our fresh water. Our freshwater strategy targets the protection and restoration of the sources, flows, and services related to freshwater ecosystems that support more than 500 million people and 126,000 freshwater-dependent species.

CI is taking up the challenge to transform the freshwater sector, building upon our quarter-century of conservation experience, the strength of our diverse network of partnerships, and our grounding in sound science and practice.

Our freshwater conservation program will deliver innovative, replicable solutions in watersheds vital to human interests. We will enhance freshwater security by:

  • Increasing knowledge of improved water and land management practices.
  • Incorporating the value of freshwater ecosystem function and services into development decisions.
  • Strengthening markets for freshwater services.
  • Promoting good governance and water resource management policies.
  • Scaling up action for the conservation of natural freshwater systems, from headwater to estuary.
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The Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA), hosted by Conservation International (CI) and the World Bank, focuses on catalyzing information, institutions, and action around climate adaptation to promote a new vision of sustainable development.
For more information about AGWA, visit