Ecosystem Restoration: For a better world for all

World Environment Day falls today

Dr. Fareena Ruzaik
Senior Lecturer of the Geography Department,
Colombo University

World Environment Day (WED) is one of the most widely celebrated global days that inspire the public towards being environmentally conscious. Hence, the United Nations (UN) seeks to focus the world’s attention on the environment and organises positive environmental action programmes and initiatives on June 5 every year, by employing various initiatives in collaboration with the private and public sectors of the countries worldwide.

Physical participation/public gathering for any events such as awareness programmes, public meetings, rallies, seminars, symposia and Shramadana programmes (recycling), and clean-up in terms of educating the public on the importance of the relationship with the environment, etc. are restricted this time considering the COVID-19 pandemic situation. However possible initiatives have already been organised in the digital platforms to instil patriotism towards the environment and to establish an eco-friendly generation.

WED was declared officially by the UN in 1972 at the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. Since then, the UN General Assembly announced different themes to mark the WED and the first (1973) theme was, “Only One Earth”. The UN also extends a great effort to absorb worldwide political attention and execute measures to make the world a better place for human beings to live. The importance of this has been further endorsed by Section-10 of the Rio Declaration (1992). Accordingly, this year’s theme is “Ecosystem Restoration”, which will lead to the launch of the UN Decade (2021–2030) on Ecosystem Restoration as proposed by over 70 countries from all around the world. This action invites 7.6 billion people in the world, including 21.8 million in Sri Lanka, to rally against the degradation of ecosystems and restore them for the benefit of people and nature. It provides the message that every person on this earth has an implied responsibility and collective effort to utilise limited resources in this nature for multifarious purposes with more care, understating the fact that every activity of a person will directly impact Mother Nature both positively and negatively.

However, every country in the world utilises and renews the ecosystem in the context of development and economic benefit without paying more attention to nature. A continuous process of this nature shall lead to natural devastation and destruction which will negatively impact the environment and people’s livelihoods pattern, which has no money value. Therefore, it is important to maintain a healthy ecosystem in its territory to enhance people’s livelihoods, counteract climate change and stop the collapse of biodiversity to maintain sustainability. This year’s WED will build a strong global movement towards a common goal of “restoration ecosystem” for a better sustainable future.

What is an Ecosystem?

An ecosystem is a community or group of living organisms that live in and interact with each other in a specific environment. For example, the forest cover in Sri Lanka is an ecosystem made up of living beings such as trees, plants, animals, insects, and micro-organisms that are in constant interaction between themselves and that could be affected by other physical or chemical components such as the sun, moon, gases etc. The entire ecosystem was made up of two major components viz. biotope (abiotic) and biocenosis (biotic). A particular physical environment with specific physical characteristics such as the climate, temperature, humidity, concentration of nutrients or pH value is considered as a biotope component and a set of living organisms such as animals, plants or micro-organisms that are having interaction and interdependence could be categorised under the biocenosis component. Hence, all components of the ecosystem have an identical cycle and evolving and constant transformation process to maintain natural balance and environmental stability.

Human beings are one element of the biocenosis component of the ecosystem. Humans utilise, modify, renew and transform the ecosystem for development in an endless manner in terms of economic benefits. On the other hand, continuous process in this nature leads to unanticipated and sudden changes in the biotope component, which will negatively impact on the ecosystem. Accordingly, human (anthropological) activities and natural processes have majorly caused changes in the ecosystem which we can see in Sri Lanka too. For example, the human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka: humans utilise forest resources where elephants live and now elephants encroach the nearest villages searching for food. The Wilpaththu forest cover has been utilised for construction purposes without caring about its ecological value and provided various reasons for deforestation in that area. For instance, transforming this forest land to build housing or hotel will have specific costs (buying the land, construction materials, manpower, etc.) and the revenue can be predicted via estimation of occupancy rate, sales proceeds, etc. But, how they are going to value forest resources that have been depleted and their benefits to nature and value to the environment? If humans do not stop this radical change in the ecosystem, every citizen of Sri Lanka will definitely face serious consequences of Mother Nature which could not be quantified in terms of monetary value.

Past occurrences

In the Global Climate Risk Index 2019, Sri Lanka was ranked 30 out of 180 countries in 2019 and was ranked 23 out of 180 countries in terms of overall performance over the period 2000–2019. While the country has moved out of the ‘10 most affected countries’ category in the Index, climate change-related vulnerabilities still persist with far-reaching impact, as seen in the case of both droughts and floods in Sri Lanka (CBSL, Annual Report, 2020).

2016: From May 14 to 20, a low-pressure area over the Bay of Bengal caused torrential rains to fall across Sri Lanka, causing floods and landslides which affected half a million people.

2017: Floods resulted from a heavy southwest monsoon and the subsequent arrival of the precursor system to Cyclone Mora during the latter part of May, resulted in landslides throughout the island. The Meethotamulla Garbage Mountain collapsed on April 14, causing approximately 40 deaths.

2018: Floods and landslides were caused by an annual heavy southwest monsoon beginning around May 19 and affected about 19 districts.

2019: Floods and landslides were caused by heavy torrential rainfalls during September 2019.

2020: Drought in March and floods in December were experienced in Sri Lanka. The Disaster Management Centre reported that over 312,000 people have been affected across 14 districts in eight provinces.

During the last quarter of 2020, the Meteorology Department reported a maximum rainfall of 279.8 mm in the Northern Province, particularly in Jaffna and Kilinochchi.

2021: This year too heavy rains (336 mm in the Western Province) with cyclone Tauktae, caused flooding and landslides in Western, Central and Southern Provinces.

2022: Are we ready for 2022? What is the contingency plan drafted for mitigating possible risks? Responsible authorities should have a contingency plan for 2022 based on past experiences.

Moreover, the Colombo metropolitan area is occupied by more than 1 million people in a total land area of 37.3 square kilometres, which is about 5.4 percent of the Colombo District. Population density is nearly 18,000 persons per square kilometre (Census Department, 2014). The daily floating population is over 500,000 persons (Colombo MC, 2012). Approximately 95 percent of the domestic waste generated in 47 municipal wards has been discharged to the waste stream, out of which 800–850 MT is collected daily by Municipal authorities. The remaining waste is exposed to the environment in any form which may subsequently end up in the existing drainage system of the area. The COVID-19 pandemic situation emerged during the first quarter of 2020 and the country is still struggling to manage the situation, which carries unmeasurable loss to the country’s economy in the form of direct and opportunity cost. Can we expect the Government to allocate funds for special ecosystem restoration projects? I appeal to establish an “ecosystem restoration fund” to support special projects setting a target for 2030.

Ecosystem Restoration

All living organisms, including humans, are dependent on the natural ecosystem. All needs and wants of them are supplied by the ecosystem without any interruption. Hence, in order to keep our living standards at a required level, it is very important that we preserve our natural ecosystems to fulfil our daily needs and the needs of the future generations. Accordingly, ecosystem restoration means assisting in the recovery of ecosystems that have been degraded or destroyed, as well as conserving the ecosystems that are still intact. Healthier ecosystems, with rich biodiversity yield greater benefits such as more fertile soils, bigger yields of timber and fish, and larger stores of greenhouse gases.

All kinds of ecosystems can be restored, including forests, farmlands, cities, wetlands and oceans. Restoration initiatives can be launched by almost anyone – governments or any other stakeholder. Restoration can happen in many ways – for example through actively planting or by removing pressures so that nature can recover on its own. It is not always possible or desirable to return an ecosystem to its original state. We still need farmland and infrastructure on land that was once forest, for instance, and ecosystems like societies need to adapt to a changing climate.

Conclusion

Beautiful resources of Sri Lanka have been degraded due to multiple human activities such as deforestation, usage of chemicals for agriculture, solid waste disposal, emission of gases to the environment, marine and inland water pollution, etc. In this context, the WED provides two major messages in terms of restoration which are recovery/restoration of ecosystems that have already been degraded or destroyed and conserving the ecosystems at the existing level without allowing their further destruction. Ecosystem restoration is possible in maintaining and restoring a cleaner and greener environment via implementing a green and blue concept with the participation of all stakeholders and behavioural change of the public using all media as a tool.

Sri Lanka has a land area of 65,650 square kilometres with 29.46 percent (12,493 square kilometres ) of forest cover, 103 rivers, approximately 12,000 inland water bodies, 45.45 percent agricultural land area, and a 1,785 km long coastal line. The environmental standards of all these resources have been gradually degraded due to the improper utilisation and renewals of resources without environmental care after the introduction of an open economic policy in 1978. The major reason behind this situation is the failure of stakeholders to connect with nature, discharging their duty as a citizen of this nation towards the environment. Although, the Constitution of Sri Lanka provides a provision (Sec.14 of Article 27) to protect, preserve and improve the environment for the benefit of the people, the various governments that came to power since 1977 have been attempting to shift their economic policies to meet the ever-increasing trend of demand, implementing various development projects, without paying much understanding on natural ecosystems which support our own prosperity and well-being.

Therefore, a proactive and holistic disaster management and a sustainable development framework are essential to mitigate the adverse impact of climate change. Several measures have already been adopted to address emerging negative consequences of disasters, and these need to be strengthened within a framework with emphasis on policy reforms on disaster prevention, preparedness, response and recovery measures with a view to reducing the climate vulnerability of the economy while increasing the resilience of the entire community against climate risks. Moreover, special attention on comprehensive environmental impact assessments of development projects, development and promotion of environment-related market instruments such as polluter-payment systems, environmental taxes and green financial instruments, public awareness and involvement in environmental conservation, enforcement of regulations, and monitoring system with institutional support are essential to enhance the country’s disaster management profile and drive the economy on a sustainable growth path. With due consideration to these, there is a growing need for policymakers and relevant stakeholders to urgently prioritise responsible resource consumption, environmental conservation measures and climate change adaptation strategies in the development policy agenda of the country (CBSL, Annual Report, 2020). The Meteorology Department, the National Building Research Organisation, the Disaster Management Centre, the Central Environmental Authority, the Wildlife Department, and the public have a great responsibility to play in terms of ecosystem restoration.

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