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A Red List for Ecosystems: Will it Aid Conservation?

The most devastated ecosystem I’ve ever seen is the Aral Sea in Central Asia. Once the world’s fourth largest lake, the Aral spanned an area the size of Ireland. It harbored more than twenty species of fish, and its fishery sustained an annual catch of 44,000 tons and 60,000 jobs. Lush wetlands along the lake’s...

The Aral Sea in Central Asia, in 1989 (L) and 2008 (R). Images courtesy of NASA.

The most devastated ecosystem I’ve ever seen is the Aral Sea in Central Asia.

Once the world’s fourth largest lake, the Aral spanned an area the size of Ireland. It harbored more than twenty species of fish, and its fishery sustained an annual catch of 44,000 tons and 60,000 jobs. Lush wetlands along the lake’s shore provided vital habitat for domestic and migratory birds.

The vast lake anchored the lives and culture of millions of people, and generation after generation came to love and depend on it.

Today, the Aral Sea is a poster child of aquatic ruin.  In just a few decades, the diversion of the two rivers that flow into it – to supply irrigation water for cotton production –caused the lake to lose about 90 percent of its water.  Years ago, standing on a lakeside bluff in the port town of Muynoq, I couldn’t even see the lake – it was 25 miles away.

The fishing industry crashed.  The Aral’s unique species of salmon appears to have gone extinct.  Wetlands dried up.  The lake’s salinity tripled. Toxic dust sent aloft by desert winds blowing across the dried-out seabed made the air hazardous to breathe and poisoned the land.  Not surprisingly, many people fled the region.

So, a question: Would ecosystems like the Aral – and the life they sustain – have a better chance of being saved if scientists assessed, classified and tracked the likelihood of their demise?

The development of a new conservation tool by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a global conservation organization headquartered in Gland, Switzerland, presumes that the answer is yes.

The IUCN is devising a new approach to evaluate and categorize the status of the world’s ecosystems and creating a “red list” to spotlight those at risk, a tool analogous to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The main objective of the new list is to assess the risk of an ecosystem collapsing – presumably so that action will be taken to prevent that from happening.

This past May, a team of 34 scientists, led by David A. Keith of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, published updated criteria for assessing risks to ecosystems and tested them on 20 different ecosystems around the world, including the Aral Sea.

Appearing in the Public Library of Science journal, PLoS One, the study is an impressive piece of work that certainly advances the conservation tool.  It sets out quantitative criteria for designating ecosystems as “vulnerable,” “endangered,” or “critically endangered,” mirroring the red list for species.  It also includes the category of “collapsed,” which the team notes is analogous to the “extinct” category for species.

The Aral, not surprisingly, was classified as “collapsed.”

Which brings me back to my question.  Will ecosystems gain better protection by this new Red List of risk classification?  Might the Aral Sea have been saved had the Red List spotlighted its progressive decline over the decades?

I’m skeptical, for several reasons.

First, the same kind of screening activity for individual plants and animals has not succeeded in stemming the tide of biodiversity loss.  The Red Lists for species have existed, in one form or another, for about half a century.  And while they have helped save species here and there, the global rate of extinction has only accelerated.  Indeed, we are on the cusp of the planet’s sixth mass extinction, during which as many as three in four animal species could disappear over the next 300 years.

That said, it’s certainly a step forward to assess risks at a scale the public can better relate to.  Ecosystems service our economies by providing clean water, fish and wildlife, recreation, flood control, drought mitigation, carbon sequestration and many other benefits.  It’s much harder to articulate the benefits of preserving a single species.

My second reason for skepticism is that the fate of ecosystems has much more to do with transparency, inclusion and influence in decision-making than it does with scientific classifications.

A principle reason the Aral Sea was drained dry is that its fate was determined in Moscow, not in the region itself. Up until two decades ago, the Aral Sea region was part of the Soviet Union, and Soviet central planners calculated that the rivers flowing into the Aral Sea would be more valuable growing cotton in the desert than sustaining the lake.  The people who depended on the Aral Sea had no say.

Similar patterns of exclusion are repeated over and over with “development” projects of all kinds – from big dams that alter rivers to farming enterprises that clear tropical forests.

Without assurances that those whose livelihoods depend on the ecosystems at risk will have a fair say in decisions that determine the fates of those ecosystems, more scientific knowledge and classification will do little to arrest ecosystem loss.

Lastly, I’m concerned that designating ecosystems as “collapsed” could hurt conservation efforts.

I would bet that under the new red list criteria, the Colorado River Delta would be classified as a collapsed ecosystem.  In most years the Colorado runs dry long before it reaches the sea (in part because the native peoples who depended on the delta were not included in water allocation decisions). As a result, its delta has lost 90 percent of its original area of wetlands.  What was once one of the planet’s greatest desert aquatic ecosystems is now a desiccated place of dry mudflats and saltflats.

But active, science-based restoration is happening in the Colorado Delta.  Working with local communities, scientists are creating wetlands and planting native trees.  Birds and wildlife are returning.  And in late 2012, in part due to these efforts, the Mexican and U.S. governments committed to giving some water back to the Delta and enabling the river to reach the sea again.

Would local communities, conservation groups and national governments have felt inspired to undertake this conservation work if the global scientific establishment had branded the Delta as collapsed?

Restoration is even happening in the Aral Sea.  The smaller lake in the north has been diked off from the larger, shrinking lake. The river flowing into the small Aral is raising the lake’s level, improving its water quality, and bringing some fish and fisherfolk back.  While restoration of the entire Aral Sea is probably not possible, to call the ecosystem collapsed does not inspire action.

So instead of only assessing risks and threats, perhaps the IUCN’s new global tool should also lay out methods for mapping restoration opportunities of high social and ecological value.  It was in fact a “map of the possible” that laid out scientific priorities in the Colorado Delta – and motivated restoration.

For conservation to succeed in the years ahead, we need to move beyond the gloom and doom portrayals of ecological decline and collapse and help inspire and guide action toward restoration and recovery.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.

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Meet the Author

Sandra Postel
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.