Some disturbing findings

Published : May 20, 2005 00:00 IST

THE following are the major findings of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report (MA):

Ecosystem change in the past 50 years

Approximately a-fifth of the world's coral reefs has been lost and another one-fifth degraded.

Over 35 per cent of mangrove area has been lost.

Since 1960, the amount of water impounded by dams has quadrupled; water drawal from rivers and lakes has doubled; flow of reactive nitrogen in ecosystems has doubled, and of phosphorus trebled.

More than half of all the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer (manufactured first in 1913) used until now has been used since 1985.

Since 1750, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has increased by 32 per cent (from 280 to 376 parts per million in 2003); some 60 per cent of the increase since 1959.

Accelerating ecosystem demand

Between 1960 and 2000, the demand for ecosystem services grew significantly as the world population doubled to six billion and the global economy increased more than six-fold. To meet this demand, food production increased two-and-a-half times; water use doubled; wood use for pulp and paper production trebled; installed hydropower capacity doubled; and timber production increased by more than half.

Degradation and unsustainable use of ecosystem services

At least a quarter of the commercial fish stocks are over-harvested. Some 15-35 per cent of irrigation withdrawals exceed supply rates.

The economic and public health costs associated with the damage to ecosystem services are substantial. For example, the cost to British agriculture of the damage caused to water, air, soil and biodiversity by agricultural practices ($2.6 billion in 1996); the damage of freshwater eutrophication in England and Wales ($105 - 160 million a year in the 1990s) as well as costs to address the damage ($77 million a year); the rise in the incidence of diseases and the emergence of new pathogens; and increase in the frequency and impact of floods and fires (the annual economic loss from extreme events rose tenfold from the 1950s to some $70 billion in 2003).

Growing inequalities

A child born in sub-Saharan Africa is 20 times more likely to die before age five than a child born in an industrial country, and this disparity is higher than it was a decade ago.

During the 1990s, 21 countries experienced a decline in the Human Development Index (an aggregate measure of economic well-being, health and education) ranking; 14 of them were in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite the growth in per capita food production in the past four decades, an estimated 852 million people were undernourished in 2000-2002.

Half the urban population in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean suffers from one or more diseases associated with inadequate water and sanitation; worldwide, approximately 1.7 million people die annually because of these ailments.

Winners and losers

Many changes in ecosystem management have involved the privatisation of common pool resources. Individuals who depended on those resources (such as indigenous peoples, forest-dependent communities, and other groups relatively marginalised from political and economic sources of power) have often lost rights to the resources.

The reliance of the rural poor on ecosystem services is rarely measured and thus overlooked in national statistics and poverty assessments, resulting in inappropriate strategies that do not take into account the role of the environment in poverty reduction.

Ecosystem prospects for the next 50 years

The MA developed four scenarios to explore plausible futures for ecosystems and human well-being. The scenarios examined two global development paths - one in which the world becomes increasingly globalised, and the other in which it becomes increasingly regionalised - and two different approaches to ecosystem management, one in which actions are reactive and the other in which they are proactive. In all four scenarios, the pressures on the ecosystems are projected to continue to grow during the first half of this century.

During the next 50 years, the demand for food crops is projected to grow by 70 to 85 per cent, and the demand for water by 30 to 85 per cent.

Water withdrawals in developing countries are projected to increase significantly, though projected to decline in industrial countries.

Despite increasing food supply and more diversified diets, food security is not achieved under the MA scenarios by 2050, and child malnutrition is not eradicated (and is projected to increase in some regions).

Globally, plant species population is projected to fall by 10 to 15 per cent.

Reversing ecosystem degradation

The scale of interventions that result in positive outcomes is substantial and includes significant investments in environmentally sound technology; active adaptive management; proactive action to address environmental problems; major investments in public goods (such as education and health); strong action to reduce socioeconomic disparities; and expanded capacity of people to manage ecosystems.

For effective response to sustainable ecosystem management it is crucial to overcome such barriers as corruption and weak systems of regulation and accountability; market failures; and lack of political and economic power of some groups (such as poor people, women, and indigenous peoples) that are particularly dependent on ecosystem services or are harmed by their degradation.

The MA Report assessed 74 response options for ecosystem services, integrated ecosystem management, conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and climate change. Many of the options hold significant promise to overcome barriers and conserve the supply of ecosystem services.

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