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Restoring planetary ecosystems

Mississippi River Delta
Mississippi River Delta. Credit: USGS ESA

Healthy Habitats: Reconnecting Man-Made and Natural Ecosystems by 2050. This article is based on my UNFCCC COP25 Resilience Lab presentation on 7th December 2019.  

The Resilience Frontiers Initiative (RFI) led by Dr Youssef Nassef, Director of Adaptation at the UNFCCC, is a Nairobi work programme joint-action pledge under the UNFCCC, and an interagency effort coordinated by the UNFCCC secretariat. RFI aims to address how to maximize our resilience to climate change beyond 2030 by addressing opportunities and challenges in harnessing the potential of disruptive frontier technologies and emerging social trends for sustainability.

Resilience Frontiers Pathway: Optimizing future health and wellbeing using a holistic and ecosystem-centred approach: Transforming sectoral approaches to sustain long-term regenerative resilience.[1]

The relationship between human settlements and ecosystems is changing. They have become fragmented entities, and with the additional pressures resulting from the adverse effects of climate change, impacts of globalisation including migrations, this man – made artificial separation has added to unresolved tensions, which could lead in the long term to existential crises as happened on Easter Island.

An ‘Ecosystem’ is adynamic complex of plant, animal and micro-organism communities and their non-living environment interacting as a functional unit.'[2]  In other words, the future of resilience will be in understanding what needs to happen between cities and terrestrial as well as aquatic ecosystems, so that they can operate again as a ‘functional unit’?.

What needs to happen by 2030 or 2050 for this ‘functional unit’ to become a reality?  What are the existential co-dependencies with nature that cities and human settlements must re-establish for a self-sustainable model in food production and healthy habitats?

The existential co-dependencies and opportunities arising from the use of new and emergent technologies need to be understood, analysed and considered, in order to establish possible pathways for transformative sustainable living without harming human health and the natural environment.

Every year, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), issues a Statement on the State of the Global Climate. Concentrations of greenhouse gases, particularly CO2, continue to rise and the results of this report demonstrate that climate change is already very visible in various ways according to the Secretary General of WMO Petteri Taalas.

Climate-related events already pose risks to society through impacts on health, food and water security as well as human security, livelihoods, economies, infrastructure and biodiversity. Climate change also has severe implications for ecosystem services. It can affect patterns of natural resource use, as well as the distribution of resources across regions and within countries. Health effects include heat-related illness and death; injury and loss of life associated with severe storms and flooding; occurrences of vector-borne and water-borne diseases; exacerbation of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases through air pollution; and stress and mental trauma from displacement as well as loss of livelihoods and property.

In a dialogue about human habitats and ecosystems, the aspect of health becomes a ‘connecting catalyst’ as it refers to us.

Health is about people, people’s well-being and how we interact in a positive or negative way with our immediate environment.

The impact of health is two-fold. One relates to the fact that we spend 90% of our time at home, in the office or on public transport. It is projected that 68% of the world population will live in urban areas by 2050. It is fair to say that the relationship between human habitats and ecosystems is disintegrating at an alarming rate. The second relates to the adverse effects of climate change which are also having a detrimental effect on human health.

Macro-scale

There is historic evidence that there is a link between the planet’s five major eco-systems and climate zones with traditional built environments as well as agriculture. This is because geography, climate, local resources and human ingenuity shaped the built environment for millennia. The availability of natural resources in different climate zones shaped cities and villages, but also enabled the development of the first climate technologies.  We can also align in principle these five major eco-systems with food production and the development of indigenous cultures; thus, we can provide evidence of a holistic and ecosystem-centred co-existence of people with nature developed for over 12,000 years pre-Industrial Revolution.

Since The Convention of Biological Diversity positions ecosystems as a ‘functional unit’, our eco-systems thinking needs to be horizontal if we are to follow the Koppen Geiger Climate Classification. We often talk about North-South, South-South and a triangle collaboration, and rightly so, but ecological transboundary collaboration is based on climate zones of the world and is therefore horizontal.

Basic Human Needs and Approaches to Health

An approach to health from the perspective of basic human needs such as: clean air, water, food and shelter can offer a framework for contextualising impacts of climate change on health.

Air

Air pollution kills around 7 million people. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that around 7 million people die every year from exposure to fine particles in polluted air that lead to strokes, heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and respiratory infections, including pneumonia. The quality of air in cities is linked to the number of deaths and our wellbeing. Air pollution causes 1 in 9 deaths worldwide.

According to the latest air quality database, 97% of cities in low- and middle- income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet WHO air quality guidelines. However, in high-income countries, that percentage decreases to 49%. Air pollution in Delhi affecting the poor is 41% due to vehicular emissions, 21.5% due to dust and 18% due to industries.

Air and Fire 

The other source of air pollution is connected to the adverse effect of climate change – desertification, droughts, dust and more recently, fires.

On any given day, between 10,000 and 30,000 bushfires burn around the planet. The issue is that these fires are all in different climate zones: from Brazil (tropical climate zone), Australia (sub-tropical) and Siberia (polar) and climate zone systems no longer behave as they used to. It is the Age of Fire: between the 1st of July and the 29th of November 2019, there were 7,530 individual fires in NSW in Australia resulting in the deaths of six people and more than 600 homes destroyed – 4,700 homes were saved by firefighters.

Air and Children

The health effects of climate change will be unevenly distributed, and children will be among those especially harmed according to a new report from the medical journal The Lancet: “Their hearts beat faster than adults and their breathing rates are higher than adults.” As a result, children absorb more air pollution, given their body size, than an adult would in the same situation.

Water

Over 2 billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress (UN, 2018). We are in a situation where, in some regions, there is a lack of drinking water.

Globally, at least 2 billion people use a contaminated drinking water source.

There are 785 million people who lack a basic drinking-water service, including 144 million people who are dependent on surface water. Contaminated water can transmit illnesses such as diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio.

Water as Hazard

On the other hand we are also experiencing floods. The immediate health impacts of floods include drowning, injuries, hypothermia and animal bites. In the medium-term, infected wounds, complications from injury, poisoning, poor mental health, communicable diseases and starvation are indirect effects of flooding.

Food

According to the FAO, more than 113 million people across 53 countries are experiencing acute hunger’ requiring food urgently. People experiencing hunger have higher levels of chronic illness and behavioural problems. 

Shortages of Food

The lack of food is caused by environmental conditions – mainly droughts and desertification. Every year, 75 billion tons of fertile soil is lost to land degradation. It matters where we grow our food and whether it is monoculture or bio-diverse crops.

Globalisation – our capacity to buy foods, not only from another country, but from another continent means that we are living in an unhealthy food system and although 20% of our food comes from urban areas, in order to avoid an Easter Island like extinction we should grow our food in rural areas and, ideally, within specific climate zone.

Human Habitat and Shelter

It is estimated that no less than 150 million people, or about 2 percent of the world’s population, are homeless. However, about 1.6 billion, more than 20 percent of the world’s population lacked adequate housing in 2017.

An estimated 25% of the world’s urban population live in informal settlements according to UN-HABITAT with 213 million informal settlement residents added to the global population since 1990 (UN-Habitat, 2013b: 126–8). These housing facilities tend to have very little ventilation, drainage and sewage facilities, with diseases spreading easily.

In light of these apocalyptic statistics and with the coronavirus pandemic beginning three months after communication in this brief analysis at the UNFCCC COP25 Resilience Lab, how do we begin to restore damaged planetary ecosystems and human health?

Holistic Thinking

I believe that we need to reconnect in a new way to the planet’s ecosystems, mainly the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. One of the problems we have is that 3% of the planet – human habitats and cities – are profoundly disconnected from the planet’s terrestrial ecosystem and ecosystems food production. A debate about linking human urban habitats with their surrounding areas has been ongoing since 1992 and The Agenda 21. 2019 was a year of ‘Urban and Rural linkages’ with several UN Agencies showing renewed interest in pursuing the topic, but a greater integration between aquatic, terrestrial and urban ecosystems is still needed to address the challenge of ecosystems integration for human and planetary health.

Solutions complementing this holistic thinking may be sought in technology, blockchain and AI in combination with adaptation of indigenous knowledge systems.

Undoubtedly, there is hope in Dr Youssef Nasser, the UNFCCC Director of Adaptation Foresight and The Resilience Frontiers Initiative calling for holistic thinking. Finding a diverse range of ‘connector – catalysts’ linking human habitats with food production, trade and commerce to geographical – horizontal ecosystems (including water) could bring some solutions. Bio-regional collaboration might be at the forefront of future global efforts. The task for the future will be in re-connecting Homo Sapiens to Homo Symbiosis, that is people living once again in harmony in nature and with each other.

Disclaimer: This article represents the personal views of the author in response to The Resilience Frontiers Initiative Pathway “Optimizing future health and wellbeing using a holistic and ecosystem-centred approach” and it does not represent the official position of The Resilience Frontiers initiative on this topic. 


[1] A global uptake of new cultural, social and economic practices based on the “nature-first” paradigm is required to avoid reversing the progress made in achieving the SDGs after 2030, under the impact of climate change. Countering climate impacts on public health and wellbeing through a holistic ecosystem approach to health.

[2] The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBC) Art 2, p3

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Dr Sandra Piesik
Written By

Dr. Sandra Piesik is an architect, researcher, innovator, designer, artist, curator and a writer specialising in technology development and transfer of natural materials and the implementation of global sustainable legislation. Sandra is currently working towards the programmes of UNFCCC, UNCCD, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and The New Urban Agenda on implementation and adaptation of indigenous and endogenous technologies.

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