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UK criticised for failing to join UN-backed river restoration scheme

Environmental groups have criticised the UK government for not signing up to a United Nations-backed river and wetland restoration project, despite many other nations joining the scheme.

On 23 March at the UN Water Conference in New York, countries from across the globe launched the Freshwater Challenge, which aims to restore 300,000 kilometres of rivers and 350 million hectares of wetlands by 2030. The project, which has been hailed as the largest of its kind in history, is being jointly led by Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, Gabon, Mexico and Zambia. Canada, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Romania and the US have also all agreed to take part.

The scheme calls on world governments to commit to clear targets in their biodiversity strategies to restore healthy freshwater ecosystems. James Dalton at the International Union for Conservation of Nature says it is “absolutely critical”. Freshwater biodiversity has declined by 80 per cent since 1970, he says.

“This initiative forces people to manage water as a habitat,” says Dalton. “Water is critically important for drinking, but freshwater habitats also need to be taken seriously as environments that support insects, fish and provide a lot of carbon storage.”

The UK hasn’t joined the scheme, to the disappointment of some environmental groups.

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“The UK government must commit to more ambitious targets when it comes to water quality – the fact that they haven’t joined the UN Freshwater Challenge is yet another sign of shying away from improving the quality of our water,” says a spokesperson for the Marine Conservation Society.

“The lack of support for this scheme highlights the real lack of strategic approach from Westminister to tackle water quality and water use,” says a spokesperson for the RSPB.

“Freshwater ecosystems like lakes, rivers and wetlands are disappearing faster than any other ecosystem we measure,” says Lis Bernhardt at the UN Environment Programme, which is backing the scheme. She hopes the Freshwater Challenge will force countries to be more specific about how they plan to protect these ecosystems. In the UK, this would include rivers, peat bogs and salt marshes.

“I think going into [the climate summit] COP28 at the end of this year, we’re going to see water conservation taken into the climate change conversation even stronger than it was at COP27,” says Bernhardt.

Read more:

The state of Britain's rivers: Slurry, silage and sewage

Conservation organisation WWF, which is also part of the Freshwater Challenge, says it hopes more countries join the initiative. “The only way to achieve real change in our degraded freshwater systems is a broad coalition of countries, organisations, private sector working together in close collaboration with communities,” says a spokesperson. “The launch was the start of building this coalition for freshwater restoration.”

New Scientist asked the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs why the country hadn’t joined the scheme, but it didn’t answer the question directly. “At [the biodiversity summit] COP15, the UK was at the forefront of efforts to secure an ambitious outcome to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 and protect 30 per cent of the world’s land and ocean by the same date, including the conservation and restoration of freshwater habitats,” says a spokesperson.

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