Tuesday, June 8, 2010

One Planet. One Future.


World Environment Day aims to create awareness and call to attention the need for the world community to come together and contribute in preserving the environment shared by all.

Since 1973, World Environment Day is held every year on June 5, hosted by a different city and celebrating a different theme each succeeding year. Previous themes have included issues of water, human settlements, ozone layer, global warming, melting ice, deserts and desertification, low carbon economy, and poverty etc. This year Rwanda has been selected to be the global host and the all-inclusive theme for 2010 is: Many Species. One Planet. One Future.

Our environment is shared by all species, plant and animal, and they have an equal stake in the future of the planet. Since humans are the dominant species on Earth, the outcomes of their actions affect not only their own survival but also of other species. Scientists generally agree that human activity is the prime cause of deterioration in biodiversity, which in turn has led to an alarming rate of species extinction believed to be at least 100-1,000 times higher than the estimated natural rate.

For the populous poverty-ridden South Asian region, expanding human settlements, logging, mining, agriculture and pollution are factors compounded by ineffective management of environmental and social development issues which cause serious existential threats. A 2001 World Bank study asserted the same, which unfortunately still holds true: “…resource depletion and ecological degradation, indoor and urban air pollution, lack of access to clean water supplies and sanitation, toxic and hazardous agro-industrial waste generation and disposal, and vulnerability to natural disasters. These problems, magnified by the inadequacy of governance structures in every country of the region and at all levels, threaten or cause losses of life and livelihoods of millions of people” The study estimates that 168,000 premature deaths annually are caused by air pollution in Pakistan, and 132,000 in Bangladesh. That’s a significant loss to just one type of environmental health risk factor.

Water pollution is another serious environmental threat for human and marine life. Studies conducted in some developing countries of South Asia have shown that rivers are highly polluted, and the microbiological quality of water is so bad that faecal coliform count in some of Asia's rivers is 50 times higher than WHO guidelines. This water is used for drinking, bathing and washing. Studies have indicated that Bangladesh has some of the most arsenic-contaminated groundwater in the world, with at least 1.2 million Bangladeshis already exposed to arsenic poisoning. A UNICEF study in 2006 revealed that 128 million people in India, 32 million in Bangladesh and 16 million in Pakistan did not use an improved drinking water source, and death due to unsafe water source, especially among small children, remains a high percentage in these countries.

Effective coastal zone management is extremely important for environment preservation. Calculated climate predictions of scientists have shown that coral reefs, which support at least a million plant and animal species, will sharply decline in the coming decades. In a paper titled: Global Trade and Consumer Choices: Coral reefs in Crisis, Barbara Best and Franklin Moore have discussed the causes and consequences, and the value of coral reef ecosystems to developing countries. It was identified that “… coral reefs are among the most diverse and valuable ecosystems… occur in over 100 countries, most of them developing countries without the capacity or financial resources to adequately manage these vital resources. Reef systems provide economic and environmental services to millions of people as shoreline protection from waves and storms….and as sources of food, pharmaceuticals, livelihoods, and revenues.” Hence, in these developing countries, coral reefs provide food to about 1 billion Asians by contributing about one-quarter of the total fish catch. Destruction of coral reefs would understandably have devastating effects for large sections of populations.

Similarly, the region’s high vulnerability to natural disasters also results in huge losses. These disasters are related to environmental factors such as global warming and deforestation. As the study goes on to reveal, “Over the 1965-98 period, India accounted for about 64 percent and Bangladesh for 25 percent of the damages arising from natural disasters. Floods, cyclones, hurricanes, and typhoons were responsible for 86 per-cent of the damage in those countries during this period.”

Extinction of animal species is a serious concern as it effects biodiversity and hence the ecosystems. Many South Asian animal species are on the verge of extinction like the Asian rhino, the Bengal Tigers and marine turtles, to name a few. WWF has been supporting Asian elephant and rhino conservation in India and Sri Lanka for over 40 years. In 1998, the Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS) was created to conserve their remaining populations and preserve their habitats. The endangered species of the Bengal Tiger, found in Bangladesh, India, Bhutan and Nepal, is also surviving in difficult conditions due to illegal wildlife trade, poaching and frequent clash with the locals. All seven species of marine turtles are listed as endangered species in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Since coastal communities in developing countries use marine turtles as a source for food, and they fill an important ecological role it is important to follow the guidelines of agencies like the WWF to preserve this vital species. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is playing an important role in collaboration with local governments in these countries by creating awareness and helping to strengthening sanctuaries.

Academics from Australia's University of New South Wales and Purdue University in the United States in a recent study have predicted a grave future for Earth, stressing that global warming, which is predominantly caused by carbon emissions of developed countries, will present a serious challenge in the coming centuries, "under realistic scenarios out to 2300, we may be faced with temperature increases of 12 degrees (Celsius) or even more," and “If this happens, our current worries about sea level rise, occasional heat waves and bushfires, biodiversity loss and agricultural difficulties will pale into insignificance beside a major threat -- as much as half the currently inhabited globe may simply become too hot for people to live there."

Deforestation poses a threat to effective management of global warming. Several tree-planting projects have been initiated in developing countries, with incentives to earn carbon and ecosystem credits to trade with forest conservation efforts. Figures from a report published in 2007 by the Oxford-based Global Canopy Programme, an alliance of leading rainforest scientists, show some revealing facts: deforestation is responsible for about 25% of global emissions of heat-trapping gases. The report concludes with a warning that calls for serious consideration, "If we lose forests, we lose the fight against climate change." Every effort needs to be directed towards recognizing the importance of cutting carbon emissions and checking deforestation, and complying with recommendations of relevant agencies for preservation startegies.

The World Environment Day can only serve its purpose if realistic targets are set and enough awareness and motivation is created in both developing and developed countries to willingly commit to preserving the world for the coming generations of living species. In this regard, world environment protection and preservation agencies and local governments could play a significant role in rewarding responsible practices, and creating economic incentives for those showing responsible behaviors and demonstrating a will to continue to adhere to Nature- friendly lifestyles. Unless the responsibility of establishing corrective measures is shared by all, long term goals of survival might remain an elusive dream.

Published: SouthAsia, June 2010.

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