The Diversity of Life in African Freshwaters: Under Water, Under Threat

The most comprehensive assessment yet of freshwater biodiversity at the species level for an entire continent: mainland continental Africa.

The Pan Africa Biodiversity Assessment, an EU funded project completed in March 2011 involving almost 200 scientists over a six year period, has assessed the status of freshwater biodiversity throughout Africa and demonstrated the application of these data in environment development planning at four demonstration sites. The Diversity of Life in African Freshwaters: Under Water, Under Threat is one of the main outputs of the project. More about the Pan Africa Biodiversity Assessment can be found HERE.

Following the six years of work required to complete this study, we recognise that the greatest challenge is to ensure the knowledge gained is transferred to the relevant decision makers and stakeholders, and that it is updated on a regular basis. This will enable freshwater ecosystems across the continent to be managed in a way that ensures their long-term sustainability and maintains their ability to adapt to changing conditions that they may face in the future.

We hope this analysis, based in large part on an assessment of species risk of extinction (IUCN Red List status), will provide new information and insights, which will motivate actions to help safeguard an essential and valued resource for millions of people – the diversity of life within Africa’s inland waters.


 The Freshwater Species Spatial Browser

All spatial data from the project have been uploaded to an interactive GIS web application powered by ESRI, the GIS Global software provider. In this public-access site the distribution, conservation status and key aspects of all species assessed for this project can be visualised. The tool allows you to run queries to list all species, or just threatened species, within an individual sub-catchment or lake, or show the distribution of an individual species across all catchments. To access the Freshwater Biodiversity Browser please click HERE.

The demonstration sites

A number of case studies have been conducted, as a key component of the project, to develop a series of ‘Good Practice Guidelines’ for the integration of biodiversity information within the environmental and development planning processes. The recommendations from these studies can be found below.


Key Messages from the report

  1. The inland waters of Africa support a high diversity of aquatic species with high levels of endemism. Many of these species provide direct (e.g., fisheries) and indirect (e.g., water purifi cation and fl ood control) benefits to people. The conservation and sustainable management of these species is essential to the livelihoods and economies of Africa’s people.
  2. Current levels of threat to freshwater species across Africa are high relative to other ecosystems, with 21% of species threatened. Predicted future levels of threat, in particular due to development of water resources, are expected to be even higher. This is largely a result of: i) the high degree of connectivity within freshwater systems, such that threats like pollution and invasive alien species spread more rapidly and easily than in terrestrial ecosystems; and ii) the rapidly increasing use and development of water resources, with little regard to the requirements of the freshwater dependent species sharing the resource.
  3. Protected areas must be better designed to protect freshwater species. The knowledge collected during this assessment can be integrated into conservation planning processes to ensure representation of the freshwater species. Currently, protected areas are rarely designed to protect freshwater species, meaning that taxonomic groups that represent a significant portion of the total species and genetic diversity on the planet are being overlooked.
  4. Protected areas and other conservation action for freshwater species must be designed to employ the principles of catchment management. Even where species are identified by species-driven legislation, without catchment-based planning that extends the designated control areas to the edge of the river catchment, impacts such as water pollution and invasive alien species will inevitably lead to species decline.
  5. Management of water resources must take account of the requirements of freshwater biodiversity. If we are to conserve and continue to benefit from the services provided by freshwater species we need to manage water as a resource for both people and freshwater biodiversity. This approach is encapsulated within the Environmental Flows concept, which aims to ensure that there is enough water to maintain environmental, economic and social benefits.
  6. Lack of available information should no longer be given as a reason for inadequate consideration for development impacts to freshwater species. The data made available here must be integrated within the decision-making processes in planning for the conservation and development of inland water resources, ensuring all development projects have a ‘Net Positive Impact‘.
  7. Species information remains very limited for many parts of Africa. The Congo, Angola, the Ethiopian Highlands, and Upper and Lower Guinea in particular, have been identified as priorities for future field survey. Information on the status and distribution of aquatic plants needs to be greatly improved.
  8. Environmental impact Assessments should expressly require reference to the species data sets made available through the IUCN Red List.