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Why humanitarian actors are concerned by the biodiversity crisis
Pierre Carret - Florence Gibert

In the field, when confronted with a disaster or a conflict, humanitarian actors do not always have in mind the links between humanitarian crises and biodiversity, both in terms of causes and consequences. As 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity, we felt that it was important to take a look at this issue, which is an essential factor to take into account to improve the quality of aid.

2010 was declared the International Year of Biodiversity by the UN. The two main events are the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (in Doha, in March) and the 10th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (in Nagoya, in October) which will focus particularly on the situation in developing countries.

The International Year of Biodiversity is taking place at a time when the majority of scientists believe that we have reached the planet’s 6th wave of mass extinction, the last one having caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. The notable difference about this mass extinction is that it has not been caused by a natural disaster, but by one species: Homo sapiens. And yet, our destiny is inseparable from that of the species that surround us. The biodiversity crisis is already the cause of numerous humanitarian crises, and this trend will only get worse in the future.

After outlining why biodiversity and ecosystems are important, we will look at how humanitarian actors, who often have to deal with both a humanitarian crisis and a biodiversity crisis, can take this into account in their programmes.

 The notion of ‘ecosystem services’

Ecosystem services, that is to say, services delivered by ecosystems, are the benefits that we draw from nature in terms of water supply, food, fuel, materials, but also soil regeneration, climate regulation, etc. This concept was developed by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment commissioned by the UN in 2000(a), which distinguishes between provisioning services, regulating and supporting services related to natural cycles, and cultural services [1].

The provisioning services supplied by ecosystems at the individual and local levels are an important means of subsistence for households, particularly for the very poor, who are sometimes completely dependent on them. Marine ecosystems are the principal source of protein for more than a billion people.(b) In Central Africa alone, the forest and savannah ecosystems provide more than 2 million tonnes of bush meat (the equivalent of 2.5 million oxen) per year.(c)

At the local and regional levels, ecosystems both regulate natural cycles by maintaining local rainfall, maintaining water table stocks, limiting erosion, purifying water, reducing pollution, etc. and prevent disasters. These essential functions are sometimes impossible to replace by technological means (either because they are too expensive, or because it is technically impossible).

Haiti is a sad example of the human consequences of damaged ecosystems and the vicious circle which links this damage to poverty. It is one of the most environmentally damaged countries in the world, with less than 2% of its original forest cover remaining. Massive deforestation has had a series of disastrous ecological and human consequences: soil erosion has led to the reduction of arable land; the reduction of the trees’ evapotranspiration has led to a reduction in rainfall and therefore, irrigation capacity; the bare hillsides are no longer able to retain rainwater and even moderate rainfall now causes devastating flooding; these floods lead to the build up of polluted sediment in the water table and rivers [2]; the build up of sediment in the water prevents the hydro-electric dams from functioning, etc. Haiti is currently one of the poorest countries in the world [3] and the environment continues to be further damaged.(d)

Finally, at the global level, ecosystems are the key factor in the fight against climate change and desertification, as underlined in the reports by the UNFCCC [4] and the UNCCD [5].

Ecosystems are indispensible at all levels – local, regional and global. Preventing future humanitarian crises therefore involves preserving ecosystems and the biodiversity that underlies them. Yet, 60% of ecosystem services are currently being damaged or used in an unsustainable way. The indirect, long-term and collective benefits that they bring are often sacrificed for direct, short-term and private gain. As they are provided free by nature, they are overlooked by classical economic systems.

To illustrate the difficulty of replacing these services provided by nature (for those that are replaceable at least!), their economic value was estimated by a study, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity [6]. This study calculated that the services provided by nature (water purification, prevention of erosion, pollination of plants, etc.) represented 5 000 billion dollars a year. If no action is taken, the loss of biodiversity will cost 7% of global GDP by 2050.(e)

From a purely economic point of view, it very often costs less to preserve ecosystems. In Vietnam, for example, the planting and protection of 12 000 ha of mangrove which protects the coast from erosion costs 1.1 M$ per year. But this saves around 7.3 M$ per year in terms of dyke maintenance(f). And how much would a disaster cost if the dykes were not properly maintained? Also to be counted among the benefits of the mangroves are the products which come from hunting and fishing, fuel and materials, etc.

Ecosystem services are particularly important for the very poor, for whom they represent more than 40% of their “revenue” and who do not have any means of compensating for their loss: how can water or construction materials be bought on a market with less than a dollar per day? [7]

[1] Provisioning services include food, water, fuel, materials, medicine and genetic resources; regulating services include the regulation of the local/global climate, protection of watersheds, purification of water and air, pollination, pest and disease control, reduction of erosion, flood prevention; and cultural services include spiritual and religious experiences and aesthetic, educational and recreational value.

[2] Almost 90% of Haitian children suffer from chronic infections caused by intestinal parasites in drinking water.

[3] More than 60% of its revenue comes from external aid; 65% of the population survives on less than one dollar a day

[4] United Nations Framework Convention on Climat Change (Rio, 1992).

[5] United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (Rio, 1992).

[6] The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity was commissioned in 2008 by the European Commission and the German government. The cost of services provided by ecosystems is calculated in terms of what they would cost if humans had to provide them. See www.teebweb.org/

[7] Pavan Sukhdev, an Indian economist who coordinates the TEEB study, refers to biodiversity as the GDP of the poor.