South Asia Monitor, June 04, 2021
By George Cheriyan & Simi T.B.,
June 5 marks World Environment Day, a day to encourage awareness and action for environment protection. This year’s theme ‘Ecosystem Restoration’ focuses on resetting our relation with nature and reflects the importance of protecting and restoring the planet’s ecosystems and the species that inhabit them.
Pakistan, for the first time, will host the World Environment Day on June 5 and showcase the steps it has taken to deal with the issue of climate change. It will also mark the formal launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030. The theme becomes more relevant when the world is grappling with the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic.
South Asia is one of the megadiverse regions on the planet. It is home to six biodiversity hotspots and the region is blessed with some of the world’s largest and biologically rich marine ecosystems, like the mangroves in Palk Bay, Gulf of Mannar and Sundarbans. The region is also home to other enormous natural treasures including the thriving waters of the Ganges river which flows through India and Bangladesh, the Brahmaputra river that flows through China, India and Bangladesh, and the great Himalayan Range that passes through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Bhutan and Nepal.
With over 15.5 and 12 percent of the world’s flora and fauna respectively, according to South Asia Co-operative Environment Program, the region’s faunal diversity comprises 933 species of mammals, 4,494 birds, 923 reptiles, 332 amphibians and 342 freshwater fish. The floral diversity accounts for 39,875 species of flowering plants, 66 conifers and cycads, 764 ferns and 6,652 higher plants. Much remains to be learned about the region’s species, many of which may still be undiscovered.
Threat to diversity
Today, the region’s remarkable biodiversity is at risk of disappearing due to various factors including rapid urbanization, deforestation, agricultural expansion, pollution, climate change and the invasion of alien species. The region is witnessing an increased demand for resources and services linked to economic growth, and exploiting the fragile ecosystem resources. According to the latest United Nations report, the ongoing global health crisis has devastated livelihoods across the region, reversing many years of progress on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The biennial Environmental Performance Index (EPI) 2020 ranks India poorly in the global rankings at 168th position, with only Afghanistan ranking below it in South Asia. Leading the region is Bhutan that had relatively high scores in biodiversity and habitat protection. Other South Asian countries like Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh follow Bhutan.
The inherently low EPI scores of the South Asian countries underline the need for more sustainable efforts within the region to address concerns relating to air and water quality, climate change and biodiversity.
Likewise, various studies have time and again proved that preserving and restoring our ecosystem and biodiversity is vital to protecting the human race from new contagious diseases and outbreaks of epidemics or pandemics. By shrinking the area of natural habitat for animals, we have created ideal conditions for pathogens, like Coronavirus to spread.
The loss of biodiversity and drastic climate change has largely contributed to the spread of viral diseases such as zika, dengue and chikungunya. The present coronavirus pandemic too is linked to destruction of wildlife and the world’s ecosystems.
Besides, the World Health Organisation (WHO) fears that the current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress towards 80 percent of the assessed targets of the SDGs, related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans and land (SDGs 1, 2, 3, 6, 11, 13, 14 and 15).
Endeavors for restoration
As the threats to ecosystem and biodiversity proliferate, there are some rays of hope within the region due to persistent efforts by various dedicated stakeholders who have helped in at least partial restoration of the ecosystem.
For example, community-based forestry practiced for nearly 40 years in the Phewa Lake region of Nepal has resulted in the restoration of forest cover to a considerable proportion in the mountain region. Community members trained to protect the ecosystem and manage the forest subsequently learned to use natural resources more efficiently and sustainably.
Another example is the bold initiative of the little Indian state of Sikkim in 2003 to go organic due to concern about the harmful effects of chemicals on the land and its people. Within just over a decade, Sikkim succeeded in being the country’s first 100 percent organic state. This change to organic farming not only helped in boosting its economy but also helped immensely in restoring Sikkim’s fragile ecosystem and diverse wildlife. Likewise, the persistent efforts by the scientists and government authorities in India have paid off as the number of wild tigers in the country has doubled from 1,411 in 2006 to 2,967 by 2019.
Concerted effort required
Restoring ecosystems carries substantial benefits for the people; it creates jobs in rural areas and among tribal communities where they are most needed. Unlike in the past, countries too have started to realize the importance of restoring ecosystems to tackle climate change and bounce back from deadly diseases. Therefore, the future of the ecosystem in the region will depend on how elected leaders prioritize the environment and how willing they are to work together with each other.
Currently, the region lacks concrete joint regional efforts to address the issue of restoring ecosystems compared to other regions in the world. A concerted regional effort to protect and restore the ecosystem can have a significant impact, given the dismal performance on the EPI index by almost all these countries. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) perhaps would be the ideal platform that could facilitate a collaborated effort to restore the otherwise dying ecosystem.
(George Cheriyan is director and Simi T.B. is policy analyst at CUTS International, a global public policy research and consumer advocacy organization. The views are personal. George Cheriyan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and Simi T.B. at email@example.com)
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