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21 Mar 2019 | Blog

Every drop of fresh water matters, every little fish counts

This World Water Day, let us leave no species behind as we discuss water and freshwater ecosystems

Nishikant Gupta

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The Golden Mahseer from the Indian Himalayan region, threatened by habitat loss, pollution, and over-fishing, is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Photo courtesy: The Himalayan Outback

The rivers of the Hindu Kush Himalaya provide numerous critical goods and services to nearly two billion people, residing both within their catchment and downstream. These services are vital for lives and livelihoods, and general wellbeing. The majestic rivers also harbour rich biodiversity, encompassing both floral and faunal species, of which native freshwater fish form a major portion. Increasing anthropogenic stressors – pollution, habitat loss, deforestation and degradation – often contributed by uncontrolled and unplanned urbanization and infrastructure growth, continue to take a toll on the ecological integrity of these rivers. In addition, projected changes in climatic variables – erratic rainfall, rising temperature, and melting glaciers – have the capacity to spell disaster for these vital ecosystems. There are projections of more flash floods and drought events, both of which will have a negative impact on rivers. It is therefore, not surprising that numerous acts and laws in the basin countries support and guide various strategies for the protection and long-term conservation of these rivers. For example, the National Mission for Clean Ganga initiated by the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, Government of India is working towards protecting and conserving the sacred Ganga River. The Mekong River Commission is working with various national governments to jointly manage the sustainable development of the Mekong River.

Over the past few years, we have developed a better understanding of water-induced hazards – floods, droughts, landslides, and sedimentation – especially those with transboundary implications. It is now widely accepted that upstream hazards lead to disasters in downstream areas, affecting millions of people. Moreover, there is growing acceptance that extreme weather events with cascading impacts are expected to magnify in frequency and intensity under various climate change scenarios. This has led to a considerable amount of effort and resources being invested in enhancing adaptation and developing resilient options for local communities – so as to secure lives and livelihoods and sustain general wellbeing.

However, there are some pressing questions that are slowly beginning to emerge from the discourse around the conservation of important freshwater systems:

Given the emerging threats, how much attention is actually being paid to freshwater faunal species, especially native fish?

When we talk about protecting a freshwater ecosystem, why is it that, more often than not, the focus shifts to the multiple services or livelihoods that the body can provide – are some of these services not dependent on the native fish species?

Yes, protecting a freshwater ecosystem can provide umbrella defense to the native fish species. However, is this top-down approach enough?

Don’t other ‘flagship’ species depend on the native fish species for their survival? Surely that should make the protection of native fish a priority?

Take the example of an important ecological indicator of river health, the otter. In the sub-continent, we have the Eurasian (Lutra lutra, Near Threatened), smooth-coated (Lutrogale perspicillata, Vulnerable), and Asian small-clawed (Aonyx cinereus, Vulnerable) otters. They are high-order carnivores at the top of their niche ecosystem, renowned as the ‘ambassadors of wetlands’, and rely on fish species as their primary food item. Additionally, the Critically Endangered gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) feeds solely on fish. The Vulnerable fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus), although a dietary generalist, also consumes a variety of native fish species, as does the Vulnerable broad-snouted crocodile (Crocodylus palustris). The diets of the Endangered Pallas’s fish-eagle (Haliaeetus leucoryphus) and the Near Threatened lesser fish eagle (Icthyophaga humilis) also consist primarily of large freshwater fish.

Freshwater bodies are a lifeline for both floral and faunal species in the Corbett Tiger Reserve (Photo credit: Nishikant Gupta)

It is important to acknowledge ongoing preventive actions and conservation efforts that are making a positive impact on freshwater ecosystems in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. The private sector is increasingly showing an interest in conservation through their corporate social responsibility (CSR) portfolio. More and more people are beginning to understand that we need to sustainably manage our planet’s resources and ecosystems. Recent global events also highlight the growing awareness and resolve of school children to act and make a difference. Suddenly what seemed unachievable only a decade ago, is beginning to look achievable. There is a spring of hope.

Coming back to water and freshwater ecosystems, imagine what an impact it would make if native freshwater fish and other less charismatic species were given the conservation importance they deserve. It is important that the implications of degrading freshwater ecosystem services and diminishing livelihoods are fed into policy-making, with linked risks for native fish populations and other freshwater species. To paraphrase the theme for this year, let us leave no species behind – because just like every drop of freshwater matters, every little fish counts!

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