Ecosystem key to human health

Ecosystem key to human health

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is a rallying cry for the protection and revival of ecosystems around the world

Representative Image. Credit: iStock Photo

Every year, June 5 is observed as World Environment Day to create awareness about environmental protection. It offers a global platform for advancing discourse, articulating and advocating actions and inspiring positive change towards environmental issues affecting our entire planet. It reminds us that we humans are not alone on this planet. A huge biological ecosystem co-exists with humans. Ecosystems and their biodiversity form the basis for economic growth, sustainable development and human wellbeing.

The theme for World Environment Day 2021 is ‘ecosystem restoration’, which emphasises a re-imagination, re-creation and restoration of our ecosystem. The day will also mark the launch of the ‘UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030’. In the next decade, the United Nations, with the support of countries, partners and people, will focus on preventing, halting and reversing the loss of degraded natural ecosystems.

Ecosystems support all life on earth. Healthy ecosystems enhance livelihoods, protect the climate, and maintain biodiversity. The wellbeing of the human population in the coming decades will depend on conservation and restoration of ecosystems, thereby contributing to sustainable development. Deciphering the connection between ecosystem restoration, climate change, food and nutrition security, ‘One Health’ and sustainable development is important for protecting our future.

These issues are interconnected and interdependent. For instance, we live in a world where food systems are threatening the environment and environmental degradation from a variety of sources is threatening food systems. There are clear linkages and pathways linking ecosystem degradation, climate change and human health.

Rapid and potentially irreversible climate change poses a direct threat to human health. Extreme changes in the weather and environment can increase existing health problems, as well as create new ones. These include physical and mental effects of heat, vector-borne diseases, water-borne diseases, air pollution, extreme weather events, increased risk of chronic diseases and impact on food and nutrition security. This is also reflected in the concept and approach of ‘One Health’, which recognises that the health and wellbeing of humans, animals and the environment are intricately linked to each other.

One Health is a collaborative, multi-sectoral and transdisciplinary approach — working at the local, regional, national and global levels — with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes recognising the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment. It involves breaking down the silos between animal health, environment, and human health so that we can track diseases wherever they are found and help prevent and swiftly respond to outbreaks. A large number of infectious diseases are zoonotic, which means they originate in animals and are subsequently transmitted to humans. Worldwide, nearly 75% of all human infectious diseases that emerged in the past three decades originated in animals. Between SARS in 2002 and Covid-19, there were epidemics of MERS, Ebola, Zika, avian flu and swine flu.

When animal species are pushed into smaller and smaller spaces, such as through deforestation, they pass pathogens to each other, to humans, livestock and pets. The Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced the relevance and importance of One Health principles in the global governance of infectious diseases, in particular, on international efforts to prevent and contain diseases. It has also demonstrated that the rapid spread of such novel pathogens can have a significant impact on human health, the global economy and sustainable development.

Apart from the spread of zoonotic diseases, some of the global issues One Health addresses include environmental contamination, habitat use conflicts, biodiversity loss, antimicrobial resistance, and ecosystem degradation. Tedros Adhanom, the Director General of World Health Organisation, reminds us “We cannot protect human health without considering the impact of human activities that disrupt ecosystems, encroach on habitats, and further drive climate change. These activities include pollution, large-scale deforestation, intensified livestock production and the misuse of antibiotics, along with how the world produces, consumes and trades food.” He also flagged the need for more science, better data and bolder policies across multiple sectors “with a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach.”  

It is important to view ecosystem restoration, climate change, food & nutrition security, One Health and sustainable development in a holistic manner, rather  than in silos. For instance, more than half of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are related to ecosystem restoration: zero hunger, good health & wellbeing, clean water & sanitation, affordable & clean energy, sustainable cities & communities, responsible consumption & production, climate action, life below water, and life on land. Hence, if we advance the coordinated and concerted action towards preventing, halting and reversing the degradation of ecosystems during the next decade, we would also be able to catapult the agenda of sustainable development. Additionally, we need to remember that the deleterious consequences of ecosystem degradation will be heavily borne by the world’s women and the poor. This brings two additional Sustainable Development Goals: ‘gender equality’ and ‘reduced inequality’ to the discourse.

We must design and deliver trans-disciplinary and trans-sectoral interventions to address these inter-related challenges posed by ecosystem degradation, climate change, food and nutrition security. The actions to address these challenges must be coordinated and aligned with the principles of the One Health approach. These collaborative efforts will help accelerate progress towards the SDGs. The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is a global rallying cry for the protection and revival of ecosystems all around the world. The health sector must join hands and engage in this global endeavour as a key stakeholder to protect our future.

(The writer is Vice President – Academics, Public Health Foundation of India)