Inland Waters

Summary Global Guidelines Technical and interactive resources

The importance of protecting inland waters ecosystems

Inland waters – including rivers, lakes, and other wetlands – represent some of the most biodiverse and threatened ecosystems on the planet. Monitored freshwater populations have declined 83% on average since 1970, twice the rate of marine and terrestrial, with almost 1 in 3 species threatened with extinction. Inland waters – in particular rivers – also provide vital connectivity between all ecosystems.

Yet inland waters continue to be under-represented in conservation coverage and management planning. Inclusion of inland waters in the 30×30 target and indicators is therefore essential to achieve the Global Biodiversity Framework’s goals to halt biodiversity and nature loss. Many inland waters also have sacred values for many Indigenous peoples and a variety of faith groups.

The Protected Planet database currently does not 
provide a separate analysis of the amount of inland water in protected and conserved areas. UNEP-WCMC and partners are developing an approach to address this.

©Terra Fondriest/TNC

How to protect and conserve inland waters

There are a wide range of area-based approaches already used in inland waters that can contribute to Target 3.

These include novel approaches like fluvial reserves, and community fish sanctuaries, although their match to consistent protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures OECMs definitions and IUCN management categories may have to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

An inventory of these areas could be conducted alongside country-mapping of freshwater Key Biodiversity Areas (as yet not mapped comprehensively in freshwaters),

and overlaying of spatial data from the forthcoming IUCN Red List of freshwater fauna as a first step for identifying potential Protected Areas and OECMs that can contribute to Target 3.

Marxan tools are available specifically for spatial planning and inland waters and the Freshwater Health Index can indicate baselines and enabling conditions.

©Ciril Jazbec/TNC

Enabling factors and challenges

Conservation and restoration (Target 2) of inland water ecosystems depends partly on whether the whole or most of the focal habitat is within the protected areas and OECMs – if a river runs only a short distance through an area it will be harder to manage the influence of threats originating externally such as pollution or overfishing.

However, this challenge also represents an opportunity for integrated river basin management, particularly regarding improved connectivity and quality of water resources for people. Such an approach would also contribute to Target 1 as an area under participatory integrated spatial planning where the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities are respected.

It will be a challenge, but there is also an opportunity 
to align or balance the needs of local communities, downstream and upstream water users, infrastructure development outside the protected areas and OECMs’ borders, and dependent biodiversity. The effective protection 
of inland water biodiversity within these areas will require, where appropriate, legal imposition, regulation and enforcement of limitations on external activities.

This will require careful participatory approaches 
and free, prior and informed consent – FPIC, but if protection and development can be balanced, inland waters will contribute to conservation at a basin-wide level both within and outside Target 3.

A Pathway for Inland Waters in the 30 x 30 Target: Building knowledge and capacity for a radical increase in representation and effective management of inland waters in protected and conserved areas

This resource discusses the importance of inland waters, which have been undervalued and underrepresented compared to marine or terrestrial areas, yet they are one of the most threatened ecosystem types and support significant biodiversity values. Hence, inland waters should be better protected and conserved, even if they are small or degraded. The resource also discusses measures for effectiveness, such as using indicators for monitoring and evaluation that have been chosen by diverse stakeholders and using environmental standards.

The publication contains five main sections: 1. Introduction: the need for a focus on inland water conservation; 2. Options for protecting and conserving inland waters; 3. A Path to 30×30: Improving effective conservation of inland waters; 4. Developing a global baseline and indicator to track progress; 5. Conclusions and key considerations. It also contains multiple case studies from around the world.

Overall, the aim of this resource is to increase awareness on the importance of inland waters and how they should be featured more prominently in conservation planning frameworks and discussions on area-based conservation separately from terrestrial and marine areas.


Key takeaways

  1. Inland waters, no matter how small or degraded, are important and should be better protected and conserved. They are among the most threatened ecosystems on the planet and have been undervalued and underrepresented compared to marine and terrestrial areas.


  1. Inland water conservation should involve systematic conservation planning across biomes, including approaches that track inland waters separately from terrestrial areas; delineate them from marine areas consistently; connect key elements of the waterscape; include underrepresented ecosystem types, and consider sustainable management and restoration throughout the rest of the landscape.


  1. Using indicators that are chosen by diverse stakeholders in monitoring and evaluation is important for understanding effectiveness in freshwater conservation outcomes. Complementing area-based designations with environmental standards can also improve effectiveness.

Freshwater Protected Areas in Lao PDR

Information on Freshwater Protected Areas or Fish Conservation Areas in Lao PDR

Strategic Adaptive Management (SAM) guidelines for effective conservation of freshwater ecosystems
This publication lays out the basic steps required by a catchment or protected area manager to begin the Strategic Adaptive Management (SAM) process.
SAM guide




Maps and data sets:

Ramsar Sites Information Service provides online information on wetlands that have been designated as internationally important.
The services includes a searchable database of Ramsar Sites, which holds information on the wetland types, ecology, land uses, threats, hydrological values of each site as well as spatial information downloadable copies of Ramsar Information Sheets (RISs) for each site which have been provided by the Parties, including maps and supplementary information, where available.
Ramsar Sites Information Services



Freshwater Ecoregions of the World, (FEOW) provides a new global biogeographic regionalization of the Earth’s freshwater biodiversity.
Freshwater Ecoregions of the World

Journal papers

  • Durable Protections for Free-Flowing Rivers
    Special Issue on Sustainability.
    This Special Issue highlights examples of permanent protections of free-flowing rivers, through the application of scientific research, law, policy, and on-the-ground implementation of conservation, restoration, and management strategies.
    Journal link


Spatial priorities for freshwater biodiversity conservation in light of catchment protection and connectivity in Europe presents continental-scale conservation priorities for freshwater ecosystems in ecologically meaningful planning units and will thus be important in freshwater biodiversity conservation policy and practice, and water management in Europe. Journal link






  • Protected areas and freshwater biodiversity: a novel systematic review distils eight lessons for effective conservation. Journal link