Millennium Post

At death's door

Though biodiversity is considered as a “unique treasure”, as many as one million plants and animal species are now threatened with extinction

Narendra Modi urged people to preserve and conserve the biodiversity of India describing it as a "unique treasure" for the entire humankind. The PM also conveyed that the traditions and the legacy inherited would teach us compassion toward all living beings and boundless love for nature. With reference to the PM's views, it is pertinent to mention that biodiversity of natural ecosystem provides invaluable material services to people, from mangrove forests that protect millions from coastal flooding to wetlands that help purify our drinking water to insects that pollinate our fruits and vegetables and thereby nature's contributions to people are humanity's most important life-supporting 'safety net'.

There is no denying that our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point on account of government's inaction to prevent rampant overexploitation of natural resources and drowning in pollution to fulfil the greed of corporates and politicians for "development".

The exploitation of natural resources has been vital for human development throughout history, but the cost to biosphere integrity has been high as present development practice is not sustainable to maintain equilibrium among economics, environment and society. Though we consider biodiversity as a "unique treasure" but as many as one million plants and animal species are now threatened with extinction.

The governments' negligence in maintaining the natural ecosystem is practically "ecocidal" that causes a million species at risk of being wiped out. Unfortunately, at present, nature is at death's door and that constitutes a direct threat to human well-being. Sadly the foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life are being eroded.

Already three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66 per cent of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. More than a third of the world's land surface and nearly 75 per cent of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock productions. Many virgin areas have been covered by concrete, swallowed up by dam reservoirs or otherwise. Millions of acres of wetlands and rain forests are being cleared away. Unsustainable industrial agriculture practice is one of the main culprits of biodiversity decline. There are no effective and balanced policies to protect ecosystems' health while producing sufficient nutritious food for all.

In addition, most fish stocks are overfished; pesticide use has doubled in just 13 years and 400 million tons of toxic waste are dumped into freshwater each year. More than 80 per cent of wastewater is pumped into streams, lakes and oceans without treatment, along with 300m-400m tons of heavy metals, toxic slurry and other industrial discharges.

In this view, it may be mentioned that tropical biodiversity hotspots are of particular concern as they comprise the nucleus of endemic species of flora and fauna. Nowadays, over-exploitation of plants from natural, wild environments, habitat loss due to deforestation and extreme grazing in high-altitude Himalayan regions threatens the survival of many plants. At least 680 vertebrate species had been driven to extinction since the 16th century and more than 9 per cent of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 more breeds still threatened. From pollination to photosynthesis, humans depend on healthy ecosystems. Sadly, the world's poorest communities, indigenous peoples, farmers and fishermen are particularly vulnerable to the negative impact of changes in climate, biodiversity and ecosystem functions.

The economic recession gets media attention regularly. But the ecological recession, particularly the decline in the diversity of plant and animal life, tends to get considerably lesser media coverage. One possible reason is that the people do not see, species are vanishing because many of those species are not visible. It is so complex that people can not grasp the links between biodiversity loss and human suffering but biodiversity loss is an urgent issue for human well-being.

In this piquant situation, human intervention is needed to bring biodiversity back up and this biodiversity loss may be declared as ecological emergency otherwise it will be ecological roulette. The natural biodiversity plays a crucial role in maintaining 'ecosystem functions'. Many examples of conservation success show that losses can be halted and even reversed. Bold and innovative action is urgently required to transform historical relationships between human populations and nature.

It is obviously a herculean task. Particularly, the central government must enact laws that encourage the protection of nature; from reducing our growing addiction to fossil-fuel energy and natural resource consumption, to rethinking the definition of a rewarding life. Slowing or reversing the global loss of local biodiversity will require preserving the remaining areas of natural (primary) vegetation and, so far as possible, restoring human-used lands to natural (secondary) vegetation. Simultaneously groundwork for a rescue plan over the coming 30 years may be laid down to reverse some of the damage to animals, oceans and flora and fauna caused by human interference.

Of course, world political leaders who have failed to protect biodiversity must be forced to reverse the tide of this decline. For the successful implementation, we need committed and supportive national governments who can implement conservation monitoring programs and establish a network of long-term and continent-wide endangered species and biodiversity monitoring. Also, the government must encourage citizen-sciences' biodiversity monitoring programs by involving the universities, research centres, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and local communities in one standardized monitoring efforts initiatives. It is an ethical issue because the loss of biodiversity hurts the poorest people, further exacerbating an already inequitable world. Last but not least it is a moral issue to not destroy a living planet.

The writer is a former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board. Views expressed are strictly personal

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