22 MAY 2020 is International Day for Biological Diversity, a day to celebrate the role that biodiversity and healthy ecosystems play in hazard mitigation and particularly flood resilience. Biodiversity based solutions or eco-solutions can help us to deal with challenges, like climate change, disaster risks, and poverty. However considering only the financial costs and benefits of the eco-solution is not enough, we also need to ensure it meets social and environmental objectives and as an absolute minimum does no harm.
While the coronavirus pandemic is keeping an increasing proportion of the world population in lockdown, it is having grave impacts on our society and economy. A serious concern that may push half a billion people into poverty. Despite the current turmoil, the world has seen many positive changes over the last few decades. In Bangladesh, for example, poverty has reduced from 56.7% in 1991 to 20.5% in 2019. Such fantastic achievements and a collective SDG vision of — “leaving no one behind” — will be severely challenged by the on-going pandemic and its long-lasting aftermath.
COVID-19, climate crisis, and destruction of nature
Due to the all-attention-consuming pandemic, we have now largely put aside other planetary crises — climate change and biodiversity loss — from our daily discussions. In the post-corona era, the old and new poor people will face a “double jeopardy” — economic melt-down-led loss of livelihood opportunities coupled with climate change impacts, to which the poor are disproportionately vulnerable.
Regarding the biodiversity crisis, we have been watching destruction of the world’s ecosystems and wildlife at an apocalyptic scale — 12.5% of the world’s eight million species are expected to be extinct in the coming decades; we have lost 35% of wetlands since 1970; the net loss of forest during 1990−2015 is equivalent in size to the country of Peru. The consequences are severe, as our very existence depends upon nature for its numerous supports — known as “ecosystem services”, or more appropriately “nature’s contributions to people”. Our planetary life support system.
Nature gives us food, water, and the wood we burn to cook our meals. Ecosystems, both natural and modified, regulate the climate, floods and even diseases, worth remembering as the news is dominated by the COVID pandemic. They also support numerous processes, like, photosynthesis in plants or unlocking nutrients from dead plants and animals through decomposition. We enjoy nature, learn from it; it is a part of our celebration, spirituality and heritage. Loss of biodiversity and destruction of ecosystems therefore negatively affects our livelihoods, health, climate, economy, well-being, and culture.
Ecosystem-based solutions to our problems
Despite these benefits, sadly historically nature has been overused, degraded and lost. It is therefore exciting to see the resurgence of interest in ecosystem-based solutions or nature-based solutions (NbS). Eco-solutions are the actions or approaches we take to deliberately use ecosystem services whether to address our social problems, like tree planting to tackle climate change or stabilize a slope to reduce disaster risks, meet our livelihoods needs such as crop diversity, or harvesting fish from the sea, as well as our wellbeing providing somewhere to play sport or a shady place under a tree to relax. Eco-solutions can also operate at multiple scales, boosting livelihoods security of entire regions such by conserving mangroves in Costa Rica, restoration of micro-watershed in Uganda, revival of traditional water tanks in Sri Lanka, and flood protection in Nepal, for example.
Rongali Tharu looking at the Aurahari river in Nepal from the biodyke.
These solutions are cost effective, easier to maintain than structural or engineering interventions, and provide long-term and multiple benefits. A protected mangrove forest, for example, protects people from cyclones and tidal surges — clearly demonstrated just a few days ago when the Sundarbans protected large swaths of coastal Bangladesh, from the devastation of Cyclone Amphan. Mangroves also gives livelihood opportunities to local people, offers a home for wildlife and fish, acts as a carbon sink and can deliver future unknown benefits if it is nurtured and protected, but they are fragile and can be lost in an instant to the chainsaw and fire.
Ecosystem-based solutions are now gaining global recognition. The United Nations’ Climate Action Summit and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are actively considering them. National governments, especially from the Global South, are considering such solutions as cost-effective mitigation options to keep global temperature below 2°C, as well as ways to adapt to a warming world. Environmental organizations are maintaining global databases of eco-solutions. Scientists are gathering evidence on nature-based approaches and their effectiveness to respond to the climate crisis.
This isn’t a nice to have, this is essential for our future survival and wellbeing. Despite all our technological advances we are completely dependent on ecosystems for our health, water, food, medicines, clothes, fuel, shelter and energy, just to name a few. 2020 is a year of reflection, opportunity and the moment to grasp those simple but ingenious solutions, our Eco-solutions. We must include them as we plan to “Build Back Better” so that we increase the resilience of nations and communities as we recover from this pandemic. This is a topic we will return to as we focus on specific Eco-solutions and their benefits in future blogs.