20 Jul 2020 Press release Water

Freshwater ecosystems tool enables SDG reporting to continue despite COVID-19


Nairobi, 20 July 2020 – A new tool to ease national reporting on freshwater ecosystems will allow governments – despite limited movement in many countries due to COVID-19 – to continue to meet their national environmental reporting obligations and stay on track to preserve and restore a healthy environment.

Developed in April 2020 for the SDG6 global data drive by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in partnership with Google and the European Commission’s (EC) Joint Research Centre (JRC), the Freshwater Ecosystems Explorer is a free and easy-to-use data platform providing up-to-date, high-resolution geospatial data showing the extent to which freshwater ecosystems change over time. The site contains unique, first-of-a-kind water datasets through which users can visualize dynamic changes to permanent and seasonal surface water; reservoirs; lake water quality; wetlands and mangroves.

“As the world deals with the devastation caused by this pandemic, it is important that countries continue to make progress on their environmental commitments, which ultimately have the potential to prevent future natural disasters,” said Susan Gardner, Director of UNEP’s Ecosystems Division. “We hope that this platform, which allows for continuity in reporting, will meaningfully contribute to decision-making to improve countries’ freshwater ecosystems.”

Fresh water, in sufficient quantity and quality, is essential for all aspects of life and fundamental to sustainable development. Water-related ecosystems, including lakes, rivers, wetlands and groundwater, supply water and food to billions of people, provide unique habitats for many plants and animals and protect us from droughts and floods. These ecosystems harbor exceptional biodiversity, hosting 40 percent of all plant and animal species, including more fish species than have been found in the world’s oceans.

Because decisions on freshwater are made by varying levels of government (national and sub-national government authorities), data on the freshwater ecosystems explorer can also be visualized at different scales, from the national scale right down to small individual watersheds and lakes.

UNEP is the UN entity mandated to support countries with monitoring and reporting SDG indicator 6.6.1, which tracks changes to water-related ecosystems over time. In 2017, following UNEP's request to all member states to provide national SDG indicator 6.6.1 data for the first time, this global data drive process revealed that less than 20% of member states were able to report on the changing extent of their freshwater ecosystems. The freshwater ecosystem explorer was conceived in response to this gap.

The EC-JRC’s earth observation and environmental monitoring scientists had an integral role in designing and developing the indicators and interface of UNEP’s new freshwater ecosystem explorer. They provided a synopsis of water-related ecosystems using the Global Surface Water Explorer, a JRC-Google Earth Engine tool that maps and analyses the dynamics of global surface waters over time, and the Global Reservoir dataset, which provides maximum reservoir area for major reservoirs at a global scale. The new tool also uses the Copernicus Global Land Service’s Lake Water Quality product, which was fine-tuned to meet the SDG requirements.

“Over the last six years, this partnership has spanned developing the initial fundamental science, producing a global data product and collaborating with member states,” said Brian Sullivan from Google’s Earth Engine team. “We are excited to bring the latest technology to the UN to enable equitable access to information, support governments water policy decisions, and encourage global implementation of the SDGs.”

UN member states are currently engaging with the site to review its national data before UNEP officially reports these statistics to the UN’s Statistical Division.



About the UN Environment Programme

The UN Environment Programme (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 Google

Google’s mission is to “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Google Earth Outreach and Google Earth Engine are part of a broader team dedicated to leveraging and developing Google’s infrastructure to address global environmental, health and humanitarian issues. Projects are generally in partnership with area experts, focus on data driven approaches and visualizations at scale to bring greater transparency and awareness, create new tools to understand system dynamics and better inform decision making.

About the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre

The European Commission is an institution of the European Union, responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the European Union treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the European Union. The Joint Research Centre (JRC) is the European Commission's science and knowledge service which employs scientists to carry out research in order to provide independent scientific advice and support to European Union policy.

For more information, please contact:

Keishamaza Rukikaire, Head of News and Media, United Nations Environment Programme
Edward McCafferty, Press Office, European Commission Joint Research Centre
Ben Jose, Communications and Public Affairs, Google