Rising public health costs and a significant global burden of disease, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, are strengthening the world’s case for moving toward environmental restoration. The benefits to human and planetary health easily justify the cost.
New Delhi Humanity is currently facing several interrelated existential crises. The catastrophic consequences of climate change, ecological degradation and biodiversity loss have cumulative side effects on human health and well-being. As the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated, ecosystem damage can dramatically intensify public health emergencies, but scientists are increasingly asserting that ecological restoration—by reversing threats to soil, biodiversity, water and other ecosystem services—could be It has great health benefits.
There have been many attempts to understand the relationship between environmental degradation and human health. A recent study of 6,800 ecosystems across all continents provided additional evidence that deforestation and species extinction lead to epidemics. Damage to ecosystems also pollutes water and creates a breeding ground for infectious diseases. Similarly, soil degradation not only reduces agricultural productivity but is also associated with diseases and increased mortality.
The emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases such as Covid-19 is closely linked to the health of ecosystems. For example, 75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, caused by unsustainable use of natural resources, industrial animal production, and other human factors on an industrial scale.
Problems in ecosystems in recent decades have also contributed to reduced immune recovery and increased sensitivity in humans. The effects are not limited to physical health, but also mental health issues such as increased environmental anxiety, or fear of environmental damage due to the ongoing deterioration of ecosystems.
Alternatively, restoring natural ecosystems could provide a path toward reversing some of the effects of climate change and reducing the global burden of chronic disease, thereby improving human health and well-being. A recent study showed that soil restoration and reintroduction of native plant species reduced the physical and psychological effects of some diseases. In another case, the ecological restoration of an urban river in northwest England was associated with psychological benefits for surrounding communities.
There is also evidence that environmental restoration can protect people from extreme weather events and related public health crises. Finally, the use of alternative fuels for cooking, such as biogas in improved stoves – which reduces the use of wood as fuel and helps prevent forest degradation – has been found to improve respiratory health and household nutrition.
There is a strong economic rationale for environmental restoration. Rising public health costs and a large disease burden – exacerbated by the pandemic – provide more reasons. The World Health Organization estimates that global spending on health increased continuously between 2000 and 2018, reaching $8.3 trillion or 10% of global GDP.
There are significant international activities already underway to harness the benefits of ecological restoration for human and planetary health. The United Nations Decade for Ecosystem Restoration, running from 2021 to 2030, and the Land Degradation Neutrality Program of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, encourage signatory countries to recognize the central importance of environmental restoration. Similarly, the #HealthyRecovery initiative, signed by more than 4,500 health professionals from 90 countries, urged G20 leaders to fund projects that enable environmental restoration as part of their pandemic stimulus packages.
In recent decades, researchers have developed a variety of models — including the Mandala for Health, the Wheel of Basic Human Needs, and, most recently, the One Health approach — to capture the interdependent relationship between humans and nature. The challenge now is to develop a unified framework that maximizes the synergy between environmental restoration and human health. Policies designed to address one of these issues should not be excluded.
So we need to redefine environmental degradation, understand its broad implications for human health, and recognize that we cannot deal with it without structured and context-specific environmental restoration plans. To achieve this, it will be necessary to institutionalize and make cross-sectoral collaboration between scientists and professionals in the environmental, medical and sustainability fields a part of the mainstream.
Partnerships and ownership of central structures for managing public health and ecosystem restoration will be critical.
In India, for example, there is a pioneering effort to make multidisciplinary initiatives mainstream bringing together governments, scientists, local partners and professionals to improve zoonotic disease control. This type of framework can generate valuable knowledge and insight for collaborative efforts elsewhere.
Environmental restoration is a clear and identifiable pathway to counteract the global burden of disease and improve public health. As the United Nations Decade of Ecosystem Restoration begins, policymakers must encourage collective action to promote cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary activities that demonstrate the global benefits of restoring social, physical and mental health. It is our duty, to ourselves and to the planet, to mitigate at least some of the threats we have created.
Abi Vanak, Professor Emeritus at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Ashoka Fund’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation Research in the Environment and the Environment.
© Project Syndicate 1995-2022
“Award-winning zombie scholar. Music practitioner. Food expert. Troublemaker.”