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Nature and our future

David James Molden

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The rich biodiversity and diverse ecosystems of the Hindu Kush Himalaya play a critical role in sustaining the wellbeing of 1.9 billion people in the region. (Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD)

The most important lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic is that human health is dependent on the health and integrity of our natural world. The unfolding crisis also reminds us that more pandemics are likely if the degradation of natural habitats continues. The theme for World Environment Day 2020 – “Biodiversity”, with the slogan “Time for nature” – urges us to appreciate our rich biodiversity and reflect on our association with nature during these unprecedented times.

The shutdowns in large parts of the world have resulted in some gains for nature. But we must see this only as momentary respite in our long history of the use and abuse of nature. This is not really a big win for the natural world. It is also not a win for the millions of people who are facing distress and an uncertain future at this time. A lasting win can only be secured by growth that is sustainable and inclusive. The danger is that all this will be forgotten in our rush to restart the economy once the pandemic is under control.

Biodiversity loss in the HKH

Millions of people in the region are dependent on the goods and services that nature provides. The Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) is home to 240 million people and more than 70% of them are directly dependent on nature for food, fodder, fuel, medicine, and other means of livelihoods. The HKH is also the source of water, food, and energy for people living in the river basins downstream and beyond. Nearly 1.65 billion people living in the 10 river basins downstream benefit directly and indirectly from its resources and more than 3 billion people benefit from the food produced in its river basins.

However, this global asset is under threat from five major drivers: climate change, resource overexploitation, land use change, pollution, and invasive alien species. As a result, the sources of these ecosystem services, the very basis for the survival of mountain and downstream communities, are depleting at an alarming rate. The recent Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) paints an alarming picture of species loss, accelerating rates of ecosystem degradation, and increasing vulnerability across the world. The picture in the HKH is similar as indicated by the IPBES Regional Assessment on Asia-Pacific and the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment report that we published last year. These reports are terrifying for a region already challenged by climate change and poverty.

It is estimated that one-fourth of endemic species in the Indian Himalaya alone could be lost by 2100 at current rates of ecosystem degradation and species loss. (Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD)


Economics makes room for nature

Given the complex challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the distress and uncertainty it has caused, climate change, and the scale of global biodiversity loss, there is an urgent need to look at nature-based solutions going forward. As Prof. Partha Dasgupta notes, “It is only a matter of time before economics makes room for nature. The sooner the better.” He suggests that our economy now needs to consider nature as three facts are undeniable. First, when nature depreciates, the result can be irreversible (or, at best, can take a very long time to recover). Second, it is not possible to replace a depleted or degraded ecosystem by a new one. Third, ecosystems can collapse abruptly and without warning.

This thinking already drives much of our work in the HKH. We are working with partners and government agencies in balancing conservation and development dilemmas in natural resources management. Our dedicated theme on Ecosystem Services and the integrated approach of our Transboundary Landscape Regional Programme highlight the need for conservation at scale to improve wellbeing, preserve critical habitats, and sustain the life-supporting functions of nature. We are also addressing mountain vulnerabilities through our Resilient Mountain Solutions Initiative, which seeks to address several prevailing challenges through simple, effective and scalable nature-based solutions. Encouraging community to community interactions for conserving shared transboundary natural heritage; empowering women-led organizations to restore degraded ecosystems; advocating mountain foods as niche products for nutrition and food security; promoting rural tourism in transboundary areas; and providing policy inputs to member countries on REDD+ are some of the nature-based solutions that we have promoted in recent years.

A call to action

Last year, based on the HKH Assessment and through a deeply and broadly consultative process we developed with the eight HKH governments, a HKH Call to Action outlining six urgent actions to sustain mountain environments and improve the livelihoods of people in the region. Action 5, in particular, focuses on enhancing ecosystem resilience for sustained flow of services by halting biodiversity loss and land degradation, and sustainably managing forests and other ecosystems in the HKH through transboundary cooperation across landscapes and river basins. This action requires an integrated approach that encompasses socio-ecological systems and upstream downstream linkages at transboundary scale. It also emphasizes transdisciplinary and multistakeholder engagement that promotes gender equality, empowerment of local communities and contributes to sustainable development goals and commitments made by our eight HKH countries under the Convention on Biological Diversity and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, among others.

It is time to come together to revisit this urgent action in light of the pandemic and the need to protect the global asset that is the HKH. Nearly half the world depends on it.

Wishing you all a happy World Environment Day!


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