The three most counterproductive words in conservation: ‘land and sea’

By Richard Lee, WWF Freshwater Communications Manager

‘Land and sea’ is a simple phrase and a powerful one. Three everyday words that are now everywhere. They’re central to conservationists’ calls for action and leaders’ pledges to tackle the nature crisis. They’re at the heart of the draft global framework for nature. And in every media story about the loss of biodiversity.

There’s just one problem. One really big problem. They’re doing more harm than good. Indeed, these three little magic words could spell doom for conservationists’ hopes and governments’ promises. Because they omit one of the three fundamental parts of our natural world — freshwater.

By drumming home the message that only ‘land and sea’ are important, this seemingly innocuous phrase makes it clear that freshwater ecosystems do not matter. That they’re not even worth talking about. This helps to drown out calls for urgent action to be taken — and ambitious goals and targets to be set — to protect and restore rivers, lakes and wetlands.

And guess what? We can never create a nature positive world or bend the global biodiversity curve if we don’t prioritize freshwater ecosystems. We’ve lost 84% of our freshwater species populations since 1970 — far more than ‘land and sea’ species — and one third of the world’s wetlands over the same period. And these alarming trends show no sign of slowing. We are continuing to dam free flowing rivers, drain peatlands, pollute lakes, disconnect floodplains and pave over wetlands. And drive freshwater species towards — and to — extinction.

We need to reverse the collapse in freshwater species and the degradation of freshwater ecosystems if we are to tackle the nature crisis. And indeed, the climate crisis. But the stubborn adherence to ‘land and sea’ undermines this by reinforcing the prevailing, blinkered view that it’s rainforests and reefs that really matter, while the rivers that connect the two do not.

Of course it’s not just rainforests and reefs. ‘Land and sea’ also sparks thoughts of mountains, grasslands and the deep blue sea. But never rivers, lakes or wetlands. Why would a leader who’s pledged to conserve more ‘land and sea’ instruct ministers to focus on freshwater? Why would a finance minister reading a briefing about ‘land and sea’ consider investing scarce resources in healthy rivers? Why would journalists write about rivers at risk when they’re constantly being told about the need to protect ‘land and sea’?

I have no idea why conservationists and government negotiators plumped for ‘land and sea’ in the first place but it makes no sense.

It’s like a two-legged stool. Or a two-sided triangle. Or trusting your life to just two musketeers.

Or — an example I resort to when people accuse me of reading too much into the absence of freshwater — when you’re next out in the wild world and need a drink of water, which bit of land or sea are you going to get it from?

And that is the point. Healthy rivers, lakes and wetlands are our life support systems. They provide us with water. And food — one third of global food production depends on rivers. They are central to efforts to adapt to climate change — the impacts of which will “most immediately and acutely be felt through water”. They are indispensable to us and all life on land. Yet we treat them as second class ecosystems — undervaluing and overlooking them.

I’m not saying that adding freshwater — or the more wonky, policy term ‘inland waters’ — to ‘land and sea’ will halt the loss of freshwater biodiversity overnight. But it will finally raise freshwater ecosystems to the same level of importance. It will make it impossible for anyone reading, writing or hearing the new phrase to forget about rivers, lakes and wetlands: they might not do anything but they will no longer be able to do so by claiming ignorance.

And it’s really easy. Try it…land, inland waters and sea.

It’s just a small change, but one that will make a big difference as the world tries to tackle the nature crisis. And some conservationists are now firmly behind this new approach. WWF called the exclusion of ‘inland waters’ a major gap in the top bullet of its response to the first draft of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s global framework for nature. The Key Biodiversity Areas Partnership has also called for the phrase to be amended to ‘land, inland waters and sea’.

But for some reason, others remain wedded to the counterproductive use of ‘land and sea’. Or believe that it’s more important to focus on the minutiae of specific targets — not understanding that the best freshwater targets in the world are irrelevant if decision makers are only concentrating on ‘land and sea’.

In a world facing fundamental challenges from climate change and nature loss, this might seem like a really small point. But it’s not. Words matter enormously in international agreements. That’s why negotiators spend countless hours debating over the use of must, will and should. It’s why they battle over what specific words to include and what to omit. Excluding freshwater has resulted in it being relegated to the sidelines. And we all allowed this to happen. It is a collective failure that has contributed to freshwater blindness and the ongoing loss of rivers, lakes and wetlands — which are undermining global efforts to halt climate change and reverse nature loss.

Language matters. It really does. And there was some welcome wording from the first phase of CBD COP15. The Kunming Declaration ends with a call for enhanced collaboration to “promote the protection, conservation, sustainable management and restoration of terrestrial, freshwater and marine biodiversity.” Let’s amplify this. Let’s speak out now, calling on everyone to stop using ‘land and sea’ once and for all. Because changing those three little words will help us to make changes in freshwater ecosystems that will benefit people and nature across the world.

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