Africa: When Biodiversity Fails, Human Health Is On the Line

Flowering fynbos, Tylecodon grandiflorus (a crassula), looking North East over False Bay from the Cape of Good Hope section of Table Mountain National Park.
6 April 2020

We governed nations hit by the Ebola crisis. We must tackle disease outbreaks, but also their root causes.

Human health and the health of ecosystems are inseparable. Serious outbreaks have been linked to a loss in biodiversity. Credit: Miss Helena.

The rapid rise of disease caused by a new coronavirus seems to have caught much of the world by surprise. It shouldn't have. An upsurge in the emergence of new infectious diseases started at least 30 years before this virus appeared. Some of these diseases have been transmitted from wild animals to humans, and the spread of COVID-19 appears to have originated in a market selling dead and living wildlife, including some endangered species. Research also shows that many of the most serious outbreaks - including Ebola, and the Zika and Nipah viruses - have been linked to biodiversity loss, and to deforestation in particular.

Both of us governed nations in West Africa through the Ebola crisis of 2014-2016. We served at the helm of the governments of Sierra Leone and Liberia, two countries hit hardest by that crisis which sickened more than 28,600 people and killed more than 11,300. The epidemic also cost our region an estimated $53 billion. Our health systems and economies are still recovering.

We know the toll of disease epidemics, the havoc they wreak on lives, economies and the social fabric of our nations. We also know that until we address the root causes of such outbreaks, one will follow another.

Human health and the health of ecosystems are inseparable. Destruction of natural habitats brings us face to face with diseases that were once confined to the wilderness. Trade in wildlife can do the same. But the problem goes much deeper. The decline of ecosystems and species fundamentally disrupts the provision of ecosystem services - from clean water to healthy soil - upon which humanity depends. It eliminates sources of food, fibre and medicine that three billion people depend upon directly. It fuels greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, which also profoundly impacts health. It eliminates genetic diversity essential to agriculture and to the development of new medicines.

To protect ecosystems and human health, countries must conserve natural areas and their rich assemblages of microbial, plant and animal species. Recent scientific studies indicate that we must conserve at least 30% of the planet's lands and oceans by 2030 to ensure the survival of essential ecosystem services and halt a wave of extinction. The world has already lost 60% of terrestrial wildlife and 90% of big ocean fish. A recent study of more than 2,800 ecosystems found that 45% were at risk of complete collapse.

30X30 is a call to action no nation can afford to ignore. And, in October 2020, all nations will have the opportunity to finalise a Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that will guide conservation strategies for the next decade and impact the health of every person on the planet.

Currently, roughly 15% of the world's land and 7% of the ocean are protected. Therefore, to reach the 30X30 target, twice as much land and four times as much ocean must be protected in the next 10 years.

Of locusts and tourism

Nature can be restored and the extinction crisis can be ended. It is estimated that the natural services provided by intact ecosystems - such as crop pollination by bees and flood protection provided by coastal mangroves - have an estimated worth of $125 trillion annually. Maintaining and building on this value is crucial, especially for low- and middle-income countries that rely directly on those services.

Rigorous conservation will bring a range of benefits. Some of these will support human health, such as measures that end the pollution of waterways. Others will provide the basis of strong economies able to support healthy living and universal health care.

For many tropical and subtropical countries, an immediate benefit of strengthening protected areas will come in the form of jobs and income from ecotourism. Tourism now drives 8.5% of Africa's economy. Its 8,400 protected areas account for 24 million jobs. By protecting and expanding wildlife habitats, these benefits can be increased and support local and national development.

Other ecosystem services, such as the creation of healthy soil, are even more crucial to human health and survival. The healthier the soil, the healthier the food it produces and the people who eat that food. Yet across much of the world's farm and pasture land, soil is being destroyed or degraded more quickly than it can be formed. Poor soil is even contributing to the locust swarms devouring farmers's crops in East Africa. Those swarms depend on low protein, carbohydrate-rich grasses, which grow best in soil depleted of nitrogen.

Many may argue that the preservation of biodiversity is far removed from human health. But although the linkages can be complex, human life is intimately bound to all life, from soil microbes to pollinating bees.

The protection of nature is not something nice to do once other needs are met. It is essential.

Even as African countries gear up to fight a devastating pandemic - even as we join together to save lives, protect our health care workers and build health capacity - we must remember that it doesn't have to be this way. We can avoid future pandemics if we protect and value nature in ways that support sustainable development and human health.

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