Straight to content

Big boost to climate action as 38 new countries join the world’s largest freshwater restoration and protection initiative

Published on:
  • The Freshwater Challenge aims to ensure 300,000km of degraded rivers and 350 million hectares of degraded wetlands are committed to restoration by 2030, and to protect freshwater ecosystems
  • Championed by Colombia, DR Congo, Ecuador, Gabon, Mexico, Zambia, the Freshwater Challenge is an official Water Outcome of COP28

In a major boost to global efforts to mitigate climate change and adapt its worsening impacts on societies and economies, 38 countries today joined the Freshwater Challenge – the world’s largest initiative to restore degraded rivers, lakes and wetlands and to protect vital freshwater ecosystems.

The countries from Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America, and the Pacific were unveiled at a high level event with 15 Ministers hosted by the COP28 Presidency. They joined the six countries that launched the initiative at the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York – Colombia, DR Congo, Ecuador, Gabon, Mexico and Zambia.

The champions and new members – including Botswana, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Canada, Chad, Chile, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Fiji, France, Finland, Gambia, Germany, Iraq, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Nepal, Netherlands, Niger, Norway, Pakistan, Peru, Republic of Congo, Senegal, Slovenia, Spain, Tajikistan, Tanzania, UAE, Uganda, UK, USA and Zimbabwe – contain over 30% of the world’s renewable freshwater resources and are home to almost 2 billion people. 

The Freshwater Challenge aims to ensure 300,000km of degraded rivers – equivalent to more than seven times around the Earth – and 350 million hectares of degraded wetlands, an area larger than India, are committed to restoration by 2030, as well as conserve intact ecosystems.

Healthy freshwater ecosystems are critical to mitigating and adapting to climate change. They are seen as the foundation for a water-resilient future. Peatlands are the world’s largest terrestrial carbon store, while river sediment deposited on the sea floor can also sequester large quantities of carbon. Connected floodplains and healthy wetlands can reduce the impact of extreme floods and build resilience to ever-increasing droughts.

Thriving mangroves – most of which depend on sediment flow from rivers to survive – help protect coastal communities from storm surges. Densely-populated and agriculturally-rich deltas also rely on the flow of water, nutrients and sediments down rivers to limit saltwater intrusion, remain fertile, and stay above the rising seas.

Yet one-third of the world’s wetlands have been lost over the past 50 years, and we are still losing them faster than forests. Rivers and lakes are the most degraded ecosystems in the world and climate change is now exacerbating the already unprecedented threats.

HE Razan Al Mubarak, UN Climate Change High-Level Champion for COP28 said, “With the climate crisis fuelling ever more extreme floods, storms, wildfires and droughts, we urgently need to invest in protecting and restoring our rivers, lakes and wetlands. They are the best natural protection for our societies and economies as well as major carbon stores. Rising to the Freshwater Challenge is key to tackling climate change, but it is also essential to pave the way to a net-zero, nature-positive and resilient future for all.”

Along with accelerating climate action, restoring and protecting healthy freshwater ecosystems will also boost water, food and energy security, enhance peace and stability, reverse nature loss and drive sustainable development. 

H.E. Collins Nzovu, Minister of Green Economy and Environment, Zambia said: “The climate crisis is a water crisis. Across the globe, we are witnessing its devastating impacts on our societies and economies – from increasing water scarcity to more extreme floods, droughts and storms, from changing river flows to melting glaciers and rising seas. And these impacts will only get worse: unless we rise to the Freshwater Challenge. So we urge all countries to join us in the Freshwater Challenge. Together, we can reverse the loss and degradation of our rivers, lakes and wetlands – and drastically enhance global efforts to tackle the climate crisis.”

The Freshwater Challenge is a country-driven initiative with an inclusive, collaborative approach to implementation, where governments and their partners will co-create freshwater solutions with indigenous people, local communities, and other stakeholders, including the private sector. During the COP28 event, AB InBev, BCG and IKEA all expressed their support for the Freshwater Challenge. 

The Freshwater Challenge calls on all governments to commit to clear targets in their updated National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans, National Determined Contributions, National Adaptation Plans, and National Implementation Plan for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to drastically scale up efforts to protect and restore healthy freshwater ecosystems. It builds on the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which included the protection of 30% of the world’s ‘inland waters’ and the restoration of 30% of degraded ‘inland waters’.

Stuart Orr, WWF Global Freshwater Lead said, “Healthy rivers, lakes and wetlands are our best buffer and insurance against the worsening impacts of climate change.  Investing in their protection and restoration will produce the most important returns: strengthening climate adaptation and reducing disaster risk as well as increasing water and food security, and reversing the catastrophic decline in freshwater biodiversity. But we need to find new pathways to address this urgently.”

The Freshwater Challenge will also focus on providing the evidence needed at country level to effectively design and implement restoration measures, identify priority areas for restoration, update relevant national strategies and plans, and mobilise resources and set up financial mechanisms to implement the targets.

Led by the coalition of countries, the Freshwater Challenge is supported by Conservation International, IUCN, the Secretariat of the Convention on Wetlands, The Nature Conservancy, Wetlands International, OECD, UNEP (under the auspices of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration), and WWF.


Susan Gardner, Director of the Ecosystems Division, UNEP said, “Healthy freshwater ecosystems are essential for our survival. They are also severely impacted by, but help us to combat, the crises of biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change. UNEP commends this country-led initiative and the number of countries signing up to accelerate and align with the commitments in the Paris Agreement and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.”

James Dalton, IUCN said “At this critical moment in the UNFCCC negotiations, where countries take stock of progress and we collectively look at the challenges ahead, the Freshwater Challenge will mobilise country, community and corporate action to restore freshwater ecosystems for both adaptation and mitigation needs.”

Francesca Antonelli, Head of Rivers & Lakes at Wetlands International said: “Healthy rivers, lakes, peatlands and marshes are key to addressing the climate emergency. The Freshwater Challenge will show how to accelerate and scale up the safeguarding and restoration of wetland ecosystems, and the urgency of tackling the drivers of wetland destruction. COP28 promised to give new prominence to water in climate mitigation and adaptation, and the conclusions of the Global Stocktake must also recognise more strongly than ever the crucial role of water and wetlands in delivering the Paris Agreement.”

Nicole Silk, Global Director of Freshwater Outcomes at The Nature Conservancy said: “Healthy freshwater systems are at the heart of demonstrated, cost-effective, equitable and readily available solutions to the triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. Yet they have long been undervalued, and particularly underrepresented in the global climate agenda. We must do better. The Freshwater Challenge, and the momentum it’s generating among country leaders at COP28, shows the world is ready for a fresh approach – one that puts fresh water first.” 

Maíra Ometto Bezerra, Freshwater Science Lead with Conservation International said: “The fast-increasing number of countries signing-on to the Freshwater Challenge underscores that we are at a watershed moment for freshwater and healthy watersheds. It is more than clear that nations across the world recognize that healthy freshwater ecosystems are a major solution to climate change mitigation and adaptation. Conservation International is deeply invested in working together with countries to effectively create and implement natural climate solutions that tackle the water and climate crises at the same time.”


Christina Niemelä-Ström, Head of Sustainability, IKEA Supply said: “IKEA welcomes the country-led Freshwater Challenge and encourages more countries in risk areas to join, recognising the importance of collective action to solve the challenges in restoring and protecting water ecosystems. We are committed to do our part, working together with governments, NGOs and local communities. As part of our commitment to be good water stewards, we are currently identifying the most important river basins linked to our supply chains, addressing water scarcity.”

Notes for Editors

New countries that joined the Freshwater Challenge at COP28:
Botswana, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Canada, Chad, Chile, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Fiji, France, Finland, Gabon, Germany, Iraq, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Nepal, Netherlands, Niger, Norway, Pakistan, Peru, Republic of Congo, Senegal, Slovenia, Spain, Tajikistan, Tanzania, UAE, Uganda, UK, USA and Zimbabwe

Facts and figures

  • About four billion people, representing nearly two-thirds of the global population, experience severe water scarcity at least one month of the year.
  • 2.3 billion people live in water-stressed countries.
  • Almost three-quarters of all recent natural disasters are water-related, including floods, droughts and storms. These disasters have destroyed lives and livelihoods, impacted millions and caused US$700 billion in economic damage in the past 20 years.
  • By 2050
    • Five times as much land is likely to face “extreme drought”.
    • 5.7 billion people are likely to live in water-scarce areas.
    • The number of people at risk from floods is projected to rise to around 1.6 billion

About the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)
UNEP is the leading global voice on the environment. It provides leadership and encourages partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.

About the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
IUCN is a membership Union composed of both government and civil society organisations. It harnesses the experience, resources and reach of its more than 1,300 Member organisations and the input of more than 15,000 experts. IUCN is the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it.

About Conservation International (CI)

CI is an international NGO that unites science research, policy, and conservation finance to protect the nature that we rely on for food, fresh water and livelihoods. We conduct our work through partnership with governments, universities, NGOs and the private sector. We produce scientific publications, policy reports, tools and guidance for natural resource conservation and management, and we engage in on-the-ground implementation of our work with partner organizations and communities across the land, freshwaters, and sea of more than 70 countries.

About The Nature Conservancy (TNC)

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. Working in more than 70 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit

About WWF:

WWF is an independent conservation organisation, with over 30 million followers and a global network active in nearly 100 countries. Our mission is to stop the degradation of the planet’s natural environment and to build a future in which people live in harmony with nature, by conserving the world’s biological diversity, ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable. We do this by promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption. Visit for the latest news and media resources; follow us on X @WWF_media and @climateWWF.

About Wetlands International

Wetlands International is the only global not-for-profit organisation fully dedicated to the conservation and restoration of wetlands. Our vision is a world where wetlands are treasured and nurtured for their beauty, the life they support and the resources they provide. We work to inspire and mobilise society to safeguard and restore wetlands for people and nature, and to scale up action by enabling others to implement proven solutions. Visit and follow us on X @WetlandsInt