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5 Countries Control 70% of the World’s Remaining Wilderness

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Brazil, home to the Amazon, is one of five countries that control 70 percent of the world's remaining wilderness. Danita Delimont / Getty Images

This week began with the disturbing news that human activity has caused a 60 percent decline in wildlife since 1970.

Now, a group of researchers from the University of Queensland and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have released a stunning map showing that just five countries are home to more than 70 percent of the world's last, undisturbed wilderness areas.


Those five countries? The U.S., Brazil, Canada, Russia and Australia.

The five countries that control most remaining wilderness area are Brazil, the U.S., Canada, Russia and Australia. Nature

In a series of studies over two years, the researchers found that more than 77 percent of land, excluding Antarctica, and 87 percent of oceans, has been modified by human activity in some way.

"In this new analysis we've created a global map and intersected it with national borders to ask: who is responsible?" lead author and University of Queensland conservation scientist James Watson told The Guardian.

The answer is that just 20 countries control 94 percent of the remaining wilderness, excluding Antarctica and the open ocean.

The list of countries controlling most of the world's wilderness.Nature

The researchers published their map in a "Comment" published in Nature Wednesday, in which they urge the international community to protect these remaining wilderness areas when it comes together for the 14th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Cairo this month.

"We urge participants at the meeting to include a mandated target for wilderness conservation. In our view, a bold yet achievable target is to define and conserve 100% of all remaining intact ecosystems," the authors wrote.

However, their call comes at a perilous political moment in many of the countries responsible for these last wildernesses.

Brazil's Amazon, for example, is newly under threat by the election of far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro, who has promised to collapse the country's environment and agriculture ministry and open more of the rainforest to farming and mining.

Most of the wild land in the U.S. is in the Arctic tundra of Alaska, and the Trump administration has just approved a controversial oil drilling island and underwater pipeline that could put Arctic ecosystems and communities at risk.

But the researchers are adamant about the importance of protecting these ecosystems. They are essential refuges for biodiversity and for indigenous communities, in addition to being important for storing carbon and mitigating the impacts of climate change.

"Already we have lost so much. We must grasp these opportunities to secure the wilderness before it disappears forever," WCS executive vice president for global conservation John Robinson told The Guardian.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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