Saving Ecosystems To Save Lives

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, September 18, 2000 (ENS) - A landmark assessment of Earth’s ecosystems calls for a new approach to environmental management, based on preserving the ability of ecosystems to sustain life. The report was released Friday during a meeting of some of the world's top environment officials.


Agroecosystems will face enormous challenges to meet the food needs of an additional 1.7 billion people over the next 20 years, the report says (All photos courtesy World Resources Institute)
The report, "World Resources 2000-2001: People and Ecosystems, The Fraying Web of Life," was released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UNEP, the World Bank and the World Resources Institute (WRI). Over 175 scientists contributed to this global research effort, which took more than two years to complete.

The report examines coastal, forest, grassland, and freshwater and agricultural ecosystems. It grades their health on the basis of their ability to produce the goods and services that the world relies on. These include production of food, provision of pure and sufficient water, storage of atmospheric carbon, maintenance of biodiversity and provision of recreation and tourism opportunities.

"Every measure used by scientists to assess the health of the world's ecosystems tells us that we are drawing on them more than ever and degrading them at an accelerating pace," said Dr. Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). "We depend on ecosystems to sustain us, and their continued good health depends, in turn, on how we take care of them."

"For too long we have focused on how much we can take from our ecosystems, with little attention to the services that they provide," said Thomas Johansson, director of UNDP's Energy and Atmosphere Programme. "Ecosystems provide essential services like climate control and nutrient recycling that we cannot replace at any reasonable price."


Coastal ecosystems: 40 percent of the world's population lives with 100 kilometers of a coastline, an area that accounts for just 20 percent of the Earth’s land mass
The scorecards and the statistics in People and Ecosystems paint a dismal picture of over-fished oceans, over-pumping of water for farming, destruction of coral reefs and forests, even too much tourism.

The report identifies human population growth and increasing consumption as the two principal drivers of the decline of the world's ecosystems.

"Stripped of its ecosystems, Earth would resemble the stark, lifeless images beamed back from Mars in 1997," says the report. The study recommends that governments and people must view the sustainability of ecosystems as essential to human life. It calls for an ecosystems approach to managing the world's critical resources, which means evaluating decisions on land and resource use in light of how they affect the capacity of ecosystems to produce goods and services.

"We already know enough to begin to manage ecosystems sustainably. We can restore some of the natural productivity we have lost," said Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute. "Many of the 'fixes' are simple and non-technical."

The report contains case studies from all over the world on how people are acting to reverse the damage to their ecosystems. In South Africa, people are restoring the ecosystem by uprooting invasive trees.


Grassland ecosystems are home to almost a billion people, and huge herds of grazing animals
In Dhani, India, communities use watchmen and patrols, simple harvest plans, and bans on cattle grazing in order to restore their community forests. In Machakos, Kenya, the Akamba people collect rainwater and construct terraces - a practice dating back to ancient times in many parts of the world.

Lash added that while our knowledge of ecosystems has increased dramatically, it has not kept pace with our ability to alter them. "Our failure to think in terms of ecosystems has been rooted in our profound lack of information about how ecosystems affect us and what condition they are in," he said.

Lessons drawn from People and Ecosystems suggest four basic tenets of an ecosystem approach:

"If we are to make sound ecosystem management decisions in the 21st century, dramatic changes are needed in the way we use the knowledge and experience at hand and the range of additional information we need," said Dr. Robert Watson, chief scientist and director for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development at the World Bank.


At least 1.5 billion people depend on groundwater as their sole source of drinking water
The report was released at the start of the Informal Ministerial Meeting on the Environment, held September 15-17 in Bergen, Norway. Siri Bjerke, Norway's Minister of the Environment, said that the "World Resources Report 2000-2001: People and Ecosystems" is significant to all those concerned with the environment.

"It provides us with an up to date analysis of what we know today, at the start of the new millennium. And - perhaps even more important - what we will need to know in order to address the global challenges ahead," said Bjerke.

The report is available at: