By Savanna Henderson, Humanitas Global
In the first half of this two-part blog I will explore the effect of human development on habitat loss and vice versa.
Biodiversity, the variation of life in all forms ranging from genes, to species, to communities, to whole ecosystems, is the backbone of human existence. The provision of breathable air, clean water, medicine, fiber and fuel sources, food, buffers to natural disasters, an equitable climate and aesthetic and spiritual experiences constitute the basis of human well-being.
Within the diversity of ecosystems, any community of living organisms interacting with nonliving elements, are habitats comprised of numerous plant and animal species. These habitats are crucial to genetic, species and community diversity and the supply and capacity of ecosystem services. Wetlands, for example, filter pollutants from water, minimize flood and storm impacts, and provide a home to many plant and animal, including migratory species. A study of a common wetland plant revealed genetically distinct populations within all six surveyed wetlands, demonstrating the value in protecting habitats and ecosystems for species and ecosystem service resilience.
Habitat loss, stemming from destruction, fragmentation or degradation, threatens these sanctuaries of diversity and is often the result of human activities. Loss in habitat size, increased isolation of habitats from one another, and increases in negative edge (where one habitat begins and another ends) effects, characterize fragmentation. These elements cause changes to the delicate biological and physical properties of habitats, decrease genetic diversity, introduce pathogens and invasive species, and lead to human-wildlife conflict. A recent study determined that habitat fragmentation reduces biodiversity by 13 to 75 percent and diminishes irreplaceable ecosystem services. Urban, industrial and agricultural development can lead to habitat fragmentation through deforestation, draining and filling in of wetlands, construction of dams and roads, pollution and more.
Despite advances in providing enough nutritious food, alleviating poverty, identifying and scaling-up the use of clean energy, and improving human health and well-being, it has come at the cost of the environment and biodiversity. Over the last half century, 17 percent of the Amazon rain forest has been lost to human activity such as farming and ranching. Agricultural development and unsustainable logging are the main causes of deforestation. Currently, these threats lead to forest losses equivalent to 48 football fields a minute, further fragmenting and eliminating habitats. Of the remaining forests, 70 percent are within one kilometer of the forest’s edge, vulnerable to edge effects such as changes in moisture, temperature, species composition, predation, and introduction of invasive species and pathogens.
Habitats that provide carbon storage, buffers to natural disasters, biological control, and homes to pollinating insects, birds and bats, have been cleared and fragmented by networks of roads leading to continuously growing urban centers that allow for market access, economic development, and improved access to health services and education. Dams that provide irrigation water, hydropower, a source of drinking water, flood control and make inland navigation possible also cut off fish migration routes, trap nutrient-rich sediment from downstream habitats, host invasive species and cause detrimental changes to the biological, chemical and physical properties of aquatic environments including oceans.
While conservation of biodiversity is included in Sustainable Development Goal’s 14: Life below Water and 15: Life on Land, achievement of many of the other goals is hinged on use of environmental resources. Despite recognition of this in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, it is important to note that land and aquatic environments are non-renewable and our population is projected to expand to 8.5 billion by 2030, presenting a challenging contradiction to reach development goals. Today is Earth Overshoot Day, punctuating the moment humanity has consumed all the resources the Earth is capable of regenerating within the year. This ‘event’ arrives earlier and earlier every year. With this in mind, addressing the past and current failures (think industrial agriculture) and shortcomings (think malnutrition and hunger) while striving to accomplish the SDGs, especially the environmental ones, will need creative and innovative solutions from multisectoral collaboration.