पर्यावरण Perspective, "Prevent, Halt and Restore Ecosystems"

July 05, 2021

'Ecosystem Restoration' is the theme of this World Environment Day, celebrated across the World on June 05. While Pakistan is the global host of this year's world environment day, the United Nations has launched the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030. The dedicated UN decade would likely bring the focus of world governments in preventing, halting and reversing the degradation of ecosphere in their respective sovereign control and beyond. Since 1972 United Nations-sponsored Conference of Human Environment (UNCHE) at Stockholm, the international community- governments, non-government organisations, citizens, youth and children have been celebrating June 05 as World Environment Day.

Through civilizational progress, anthropocentrism has either directly or indirectly and knowingly or unknowingly diminished the value and sense of ecocentrism- a vital component of the survival of humankind. The Pandemic of the century that has already caused millions of deaths is an effect of large scale unstoppable ecosystem degradation. As humanity continues unabated to encroach on fragile ecosystems, the emergence of zoonotic diseases will threaten the lives of millions. Modern humankind considers services provided by ecosystems only in terms of limited and narrow economic cost. The result is overexploitation of nature and natural resources. Human activity has altered almost 75 per cent of the earth's surface, cornering wildlife and nature to a smaller area of the planet. Nearly one million flora and fauna species are threatened with extinction. Land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of the global land surface. About 100-300 million people are at increased risk of floods and cyclones due to the loss of coastal habitats and protection. The Global Assessment Report of Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) alerts the World that nature's dangerous decline is 'unprecedented'; species extinction rates are 'accelerating' than ever before.

Ecosystems support all on Earth like a web of life. The UN-sponsored Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) identified four major categories of ecosystem services: provisioning (food, fresh water, fuel, fibre, and other goods), regulating (climate, water, disease regulation as well as pollination), cultural (educational, aesthetic, and cultural heritage values as well as recreation and tourism) and supporting services (soil formation and nutrient cycling). Therefore, the Earth needs urgent healing. Ten more years are now with humankind to restore, or at least to minimise, the pace of degradation of the planet. 

The healthier the ecosystems are, the healthier the planet - and its people. According to the 'State of Finance for Nature' report (2021), authored by the UN Environment Program, World Economic Forum and Economic and Land Degradation Initiative,  the World need 8.1 trillion USD investment in nature by 2050 to tackle multiple but interlinked planetary crises of ending poverty, combating climate change, preventing mass extinction and land degradation.

All kinds of ecosystems- farmlands, forests, lakes and rivers, grasslands and savannahs, mountains, oceans and coasts, wetlands, and cities- require sustenance by each and everyone from governments and development agencies to businesses, communities and individuals. The UN estimates that by 2030, the restoration of 350 million hectares of degraded terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems could generate 9 trillion USD in ecosystem services. Restoration could also remove 13 to 26 gigatons of greenhouse gases (GHG) - gases causing climate change - from the atmosphere, which would complement efforts under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The economic benefits of such interventions in ecosystem restoration is nine times greater instead of inaction or business as usual practices. While the restoration of a small ecosystem can protect and improve people's livelihoods, the extensive restoration can provide security for states and nations. It helps to regulate disease and reduce the risk of natural disasters. Restoration of ecosystems can help achieve all of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as most of its 17 Goals are interlinked.

Restoring Marine Ecosystems

Marine ecosystems are under direct attack from pollution, climate change and overexploitation. The oceans play an essential role in supporting life on earth while covering more than 70 per cent of the planet's surface. With the most diverse and important ecosystem, oceans contribute to global and regional elemental cycling and climate regulation. The Ocean provides natural resources, including food, materials, substances, and energy. Marine resources are particularly important for 40 per cent of the world population living in coastal communities. Meanwhile, oceans help regulate the global ecosystem by absorbing heat and carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.

However, oceans and coastal areas are highly vulnerable to environmental degradation, overfishing, climate change and pollution. In 2015, 33% of marine fish stocks were harvested at unsustainable levels, and 60% were maximally sustainably fished. Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the World's waters, and fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean 'dead zones'. Also, under the present ocean (non)governance, from free for one country in sovereign water and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to free for all beyond EEZs, both notions have depleted the Ocean by competing demands with increasing disputes among countries.

The Indian Ocean, according to the Indian Ocean Experiment (INDOEX), has been gravely polluted by plastic debris and chemical runoff.  It has documented widespread pollution covering about 10 million square kilometres (3.86 million square miles). According to World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), more than 80% of marine pollution is caused by land-based activities that cause oil spills, fertilizers, toxic chemical runoff, and untreated sewage discharge. Additionally, it bears the brunt of oil transits, further risking oil spills and dangers due to heavy traffic.

Last month (May 20, 2021), the fire incident of Singapore-registered ship MV X-Press Pearl, carrying chemicals and plastic and subsequent explosion, has registered serious ecological hazards due to oil spills and the spreading of tiny plastic pearls along the Sri Lankan coast by threatening fragile marine ecosystem. The ship carrying 350 tonnes of oil in its fuel tank will be disastrous to the coastal ecosystem despite the Island country's Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) handling that. This incident is not less than the Tory Canyon oil spill on the UK coast in 1966-67, which was a major ecological disaster. The MV X-Press Pearl case must ignite the environmental consciousness in Sri Lanka and South Asia.

To avoid such high-risk incidents and to protect, conserve and manage ocean ecosystems in a sustainable manner, the littoral countries must come together at the earliest to forge a long-term agreement. The ongoing negotiation to produce a legally binding instrument for the conservation and sustainable use of Marine Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (MBBNJ) under the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) is a step in the right direction. The SDG -14 calls upon the governments to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. On a regional scale, India must take the stewardship in ocean conservation with other littoral countries. The UN Ecosystem Restoration Decade has provided India and other littoral countries the opportunity to begin a dialogue for a long-term agreement, at least on the eastern side, as a proposed Bay of Bengal Initiative on Restoring Marine Ecosystems (BBIRME).

The slogan for this world environment day is 'reimagine, recreate and restore' ecosystems for healing the planet. To add and further the objectives in spirit and letter, the slogan must be co-reimagine, co-recreate and co-restore by emphasising the informed participation of communities, citizens and stakeholders who depend on the specific ecosystems for their livelihood as a priority.

AVILASH ROUL, पर्यावरण Perspective | June-July 2021