Understanding global patterns of biodiversity change is crucial for conservation research, policies and practices. However, for most ecosystems, the lack of systematically collected data at a global level limits our understanding of biodiversity changes and their local-scale drivers. Here we address this challenge by focusing on wetlands, which are among the most biodiverse and productive of any environments and which provide essential ecosystem services, but are also amongst the most seriously threatened ecosystems. Using birds as an indicator taxon of wetland biodiversity, we model time-series abundance data for 461 waterbird species at 25,769 survey sites across the globe. We show that the strongest predictor of changes in waterbird abundance, and of conservation efforts having beneficial effects, is the effective governance of a country. In areas in which governance is on average less effective, such as western and central Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and South America, waterbird declines are particularly pronounced; a higher protected area coverage of wetland environments facilitates waterbird increases, but only in countries with more effective governance. Our findings highlight that sociopolitical instability can lead to biodiversity loss and undermine the benefit of existing conservation efforts, such as the expansion of protected area coverage. Furthermore, data deficiencies in areas with less effective governance could lead to underestimations of the extent of the current biodiversity crisis.