World Environmental Health Day 2020: Biodiversity loss is a global health emergency

LAGUNA, Sept. 28 — The spiralling impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic that continue to be felt across the world is a timely and critical reminder that our working public health systems are intimately built around healthy environments— thriving ecosystems and the diverse life depending on them. Ensuring protection and conservation of natural ecosystems and habitats contributes to the prevention of emerging outbreaks of diseases of zoonotic origin.

As the international community celebrates World Environmental Health Day, the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) takes the opportunity to highlight the importance of more drastic and serious actions for biodiversity ahead of the United Nations Summit on Biodiversity on 30 September 2020. We at the ACB join the global campaign to raise awareness of the interlinkages of health and the environment.

Last week, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity published the fifth Global Biodiversity Outlook, which gave us an overview of our conservation efforts for the past decade. The report said the world has failed to meet any of the targets intended to reverse biodiversity decline. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services forewarned that nature is declining globally at unprecedented rates and that around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades.

It becomes more explicit that as biodiversity is in peril, so is human health. The consequences of nature’s decline are here right under our noses. This pandemic compels us to take these reports seriously and scale up our efforts, especially because the ASEAN remains vulnerable. The region continues to face challenges such as ecosystems and habitat change, climate change, invasive alien species, over-exploitation of resources, pollution, and other socio-economic issues.

Being home to 18 per cent of the world’s known plant and animal species, the Region may lose up to 90 per cent of its natural ecosystems habitats and up to 42 per cent of its species by 2100 if the drivers of biodiversity remain unabated. We are left without excuses, and we need, as many have already said, “to walk the talk”.

Aside from its health implications, the COVID-19 crisis took a serious toll on the global and local economy. The mobility and operational restrictions put in place as a safety measure against COVID-19 transmission hampered the livelihoods of many businesses and entrepreneurs, including communities depending on tourism.

This month, the ACB, in partnership with Indonesia’s Ministry on Environment and Forestry, held a webinar on the impacts of the pandemic on protected areas. Managers of designated ASEAN Heritage Parks (AHP), the Region’s crème de la crème of natural parks and protected areas, have underlined the need to carve out support in any form for their continued operation and assistance to communities in and around them. Thus, we enjoin decision and policymakers, members of the private sector, and stakeholders to continue caring for the last bastions of biodiversity.

Conserving key biodiversity areas such as AHPs and maintaining their quality will contribute to nations’ economic recovery from the pandemic and the vicious impacts of climate change. Apart from providing opportunities for tourism, protected areas and ecosystems, studies have shown, contribute to 30 per cent of climate solutions. Mangroves have been protecting communities by serving as natural buffers against tsunamis and storm surges. Pristine marine and terrestrial ecosystems absorb a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere.  I could not stress enough the valuable contributions of ecosystem services provided by biodiversity.

As nations work closely to develop the landmark post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) and move towards post-COVID-19 recovery, let us change the prevailing mindset and start considering biodiversity decline as an emergency.  The leaders of the ASEAN Member States during the 36th summit have spelt out the need for a cross-sectoral approach and environmental considerations in achieving sustainable development and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ASEAN likewise continues to work on the integration of nature-based approaches as part of their cost-effective climate solutions. With the onslaught of the pandemic, AHP managers and representatives of the ASEAN have voiced out that plans for coping and preventing future pandemic should be in place and this should be one of the components in the review of the AHP Programme’s Regional Action Plan. This blueprint identifies the common goals of the AHPs and serves as a guide for AHPs. 

Today, as we are reminded of the inextricable link between human, animal, and environmental health, we call on everyone to reflect on how we can take concrete action towards biodiversity conservation.

Happy World Environmental Health Day!

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