Ecological degradation redefined

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Humanity is currently facing several interconnected existential crises.

The catastrophic consequences of climate change, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss have cascading impacts on human health and well-being. As the Covid-19 pandemic shows, ecosystem damage can contribute significantly to a global health emergency. However, scientists are also increasingly finding that restoring the environment by reversing threats to soil, biodiversity, water and other ecosystem services can bring major health benefits.

There have been many attempts to understand the link between environmental degradation and human health. A recent study of over 6,800 ecosystems on six continents provided further evidence that deforestation and species extinction make pandemics more likely. Ecosystem damage also leads to water pollution and creates breeding grounds for infectious diseases. Similarly, land degradation not only reduces agricultural productivity but has also been linked to disease and increased mortality.

The emergence and spread of zoonoses such as Covid-19 are closely linked to the health of ecosystems. For example, 75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic and are caused by unsustainable use of natural resources, factory farming and other industrial-scale anthropogenic factors.

The decline of the ecosystem has also contributed to reduced immunological resilience and an increase in allergic diseases in humans in recent decades. The impacts are not just limited to physical health, but also include mental health issues such as an increase in environmental anxiety or fear of environmental damage due to ongoing ecosystem degradation.

Conversely, restoring natural ecosystems could provide avenues to reverse some of the effects of climate change and reduce the global burden of chronic diseases, thereby improving human health and well-being. A recent study showed that restoring the soil and reintroducing native plant species resulted in a reduction in the physical and psychological effects of certain diseases. In another case, the ecological restoration of an urban river in north-west England was associated with psychological benefits for surrounding communities.

There is also evidence that ecological restoration can protect people from extreme climate events and associated public health crises. Finally, the use of alternative cooking fuels such as biogas in improved stoves, thereby reducing the need for firewood and preventing forest destruction, has been shown to improve respiratory health and household nutrition.

The economic arguments for ecological remediation are strong. Rising public health costs and the significant burden of disease exacerbated by the pandemic further strengthen the case. The World Health Organization estimates that global health spending increased steadily between 2000 and 2018 to US$8.3 trillion, or 10% of global GDP.

Some prominent international efforts to harness the benefits of ecological restoration of planetary and human health are already underway. The United Nations Decade for Ecosystem Restoration, which runs until 2030 last year, and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification Land Degradation Neutrality Program encourage signatory states to recognize the central importance of ecological restoration. Likewise, the #HealthyRecovery initiative, signed by over 4,500 health professionals from 90 countries, called on G20 leaders to fund projects that enable ecological recovery as part of their pandemic stimulus packages.

Over the past few decades, researchers have developed various models — including the mandala of health, the wheel of basic human needs, and more recently the One Health approach — to capture the interconnected relationship between humans and nature. The challenge now is to develop a unifying framework to maximize the synergy of ecological restoration and human health. Policies geared towards one should not exclude the other.

We must therefore redefine ecological degradation, understand its wide-ranging impacts on human health, and recognize that these impacts cannot be fully addressed without structured, context-specific ecological restoration plans. In order to achieve this, intersectoral cooperation between scientists and practitioners from the fields of ecology, medicine and sustainability must be institutionalized and established.

Alliances and a sense of ownership between key governance structures of public health and ecosystem restoration will be critical. In India, for example, a pioneering effort to mainstream interdisciplinary initiatives is bringing together government, scientists and local partners and practitioners with the aim of improving zoonoses control. Such a framework can generate valuable knowledge and insights for similar collaborative initiatives elsewhere.

Ecological restoration is a clear and identifiable way to address the global burden of disease and improve public health. As the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration begins, policymakers should encourage collective action to advance integrative, interdisciplinary activities that demonstrate the positive global benefits of restoration for social, physical, and mental health. We owe it to ourselves and the planet to mitigate at least some of the threats we have created.

Anuja Malhotra is a Policy Analyst at the Ashoka Trust’s Center for Policy Design for Research in Ecology & the Environment (Atree). Abi Vanak, Honorary Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, is a Senior Fellow at the Ashoka Trust’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation for Research in Ecology & the Environment (Atree). This article first appeared in the Bangkok Post and has been reprinted under special arrangement.

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