Restoring ecosystems good for your health

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New Delhi — Humanity is currently facing multiple interrelated existential crises. The catastrophic consequences of climate change, ecological degradation and biodiversity loss have cascading impacts on human health and well-being. As illustrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, damage to ecosystems can significantly contribute to a global public health emergency. But scientists are also increasingly finding that ecological restoration, by reversing threats to soil, biodiversity, water and other ecosystem services, can deliver major health benefits.

There have been many attempts to understand the link between ecological degradation and human health. A recent study of more than 6,800 ecosystems across six continents provided further evidence that deforestation and species extinction will make pandemics more likely. Damage to the ecosystem also leads to water contamination, creating hotbeds of infectious diseases. Similarly, soil degradation not only reduces agricultural productivity, but has also been associated with disease and increased mortality.

The emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 are closely associated with healthy ecosystems. For example, 75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, caused by unsustainable use of natural resources, industrial animal farming and other anthropogenic factors on an industrial scale.

Ecosystem decline has also contributed in recent decades to reduced immunological resilience and increased allergic conditions in humans. The effects are not limited to physical health, but also include mental health issues, such as increased eco-anxiety or fear of environmental damage due to continued ecosystem degradation.

Conversely, restoring natural ecosystems could open pathways to reverse some of the effects of climate change and alleviate the global burden of chronic disease, thereby improving human health and well-being. A recent study showed that soil restoration and the reintroduction of native plant species led to a reduction in the physical and psychological impacts of certain diseases. In another case, the ecological restoration of an urban river in the North West of England was linked to psychological benefits for surrounding communities.

There is also evidence that ecological restoration can protect populations from extreme weather events and the resulting public health crises. Finally, the use of alternative cooking fuels such as biogas in improved cookstoves, thereby reducing the need for firewood and helping to prevent forest degradation, has been shown to improve the respiratory health and nutrition of households.

The economic case for ecological restoration is strong. Rising public health costs and the large disease burden, exacerbated by the pandemic, further strengthen the argument. The World Health Organization estimates that global health spending rose steadily between 2000 and 2018, reaching $8.3 trillion, or 10% of global GDP.

Over the past decades, researchers have developed various models, including the Mandala of Health, the Wheel of Basic Human Needs, and more recently the One Health approach, to capture the interconnected relationship between humans and nature. The challenge now is to develop a unifying framework to maximize the synergy of ecological restoration and human health. Policies designed to address one should not exclude the other.

We must therefore redefine ecological degradation, understand its profound effects on human health, and recognize that these effects cannot be fully addressed without structured, context-specific ecological restoration plans. Achieving this will require institutionalizing and mainstreaming cross-sector collaboration between scientists and practitioners in the ecological, medical and sustainability fields.

Alliances and a sense of ownership between key public health and ecosystem restoration governance structures will be crucial. In India, for example, a pioneering effort to integrate interdisciplinary initiatives brings together government, scientists and local partners and practitioners with the aim of improving the control of zoonotic diseases. Such a framework can generate valuable knowledge and ideas for similar collaborative initiatives elsewhere.

Ecological restoration is a clear and identifiable way to tackle the global burden of disease and improve public health. As the United Nations Decade of Ecosystem Restoration begins, policy makers should encourage collective action to stimulate inclusive and interdisciplinary activities that demonstrate the positive global benefits of restoration for social, physical and mental health. We owe it to ourselves and the planet to mitigate at least some of the threats we have created. Project union

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Anuja Malhotra is a policy analyst at the Center for Policy Design at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). Abi Vanak is Honorary Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, and Senior Researcher at ATREE’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation.

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