The consequences of degraded ecosystems - particularly freshwater ecosystems - are numerous and include health risks for children. Such health risks have resulted in millions of deaths across the world and Africa in particular. There is also a resurgence of old diseases due to ecological imbalance. Global climate change has emerged as additional stress to ecosystems, altering them even further with more complex and detrimental consequences.
At the turn of the century a number of events led by the United Nations took place. In 2000, following the so called Millennium Summit, 193 United Nations Member States adopted the eight goals to be achieved by 2015, called the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In the same year the then United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan called for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA). The objective of this assessment was to assess the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and the scientific basis for action needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of those systems and their contribution to human well-being. There were clear linkages between the two processes. Additionally, there was agreement that economic development, human well-being and functional ecosystems were intertwined. So in simple terms - everything is connected. The basic fact still remains that people worldwide depend on intact ecosystems and services that they provide, such as clean water and food. This is even more visible in the developing regions of the world, particularly Africa.
Findings of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) clearly showed that over the past 50 years humans had altered ecosystems fundamentally, more rapidly than previously and this was largely due to demands for food, fresh water, timber and other resources. At this juncture in human history, there is no doubt that humans have modified the planet to meet the demands of a rapidly growing global population and also rising consumption demands. This has also resulted in complicating the delivery of the MDGs as was envisaged in 2000. But even more daunting is the fact that climate change is seen as one of the major causes of changes and deterioration of ecosystem services, and the impacts are likely to increase in the future (MEA, 2005).
Africa has been identified as one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change in the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (2007). The most vulnerable sector is water. It is projected that the population at risk of increased water scarcity in Africa will be 75-250 million and 350-600 million in the 2020's and 2050's, respectively. The extreme water stress and related risk of conflict are likely to affect the most vulnerable, particularly women and children.
Some statistics have shown that nearly 90 per cent of deaths of children under the age of five across Africa have been attributed to water-borne diseases particularly diarrhea and malaria. This is going to be compounded further by changes in climate and will certainly pose further challenges for the delivery of the MGD4 which focuses on the reduction of child mortality, as an example. The impact of climate change on water resources is an unprecedented and increasing global threat to life, livelihoods, and life-supporting systems. Even if the most stringent mitigation measures were put in place today, these impacts would continue beyond this century. In this case therefore, adaptation has been seen as the most viable option for Africa to climate change. There are both urgent needs for immediate and adequate adaptation actions before the impacts become unmanageable, as well as needs for preparation for the long-term impacts.
Healthy ecosystems provide valuable services such as food, clean water, protection from disease, and flood and erosion control, while at the same time building resilience against climate change impacts. This has been recognized by the UNFCCC in decision 1/CP.16 inviting Parties to enhance action on adaptation by "building resilience of socio-ecological systems, including through economic diversification and sustainable management of natural resources".
As a global leader in science-based environmental policy-setting and implementation, UNEP has taken the step of selecting Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EBA) as one of its key programmes on climate change. Ecosystem-based Adaptation is defined by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) as "the use of biodiversity and ecosystem services to help people adapt to the adverse effects of climate change". As further elaborated by Decision X/33 on Climate Change and Biodiversity, this definition also includes the "sustainable management, conservation and restoration of ecosystems, as part of an overall adaptation strategy that takes into account the multiple social, economic and cultural co-benefits for local communities".
Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EBA) focuses on restoration, protection and management of ecosystems in order to help human (vulnerable) communities cope with the impacts of climate change. Several country based interventions have already proven the value of EBA across numerous sectors and countries. Evidence is emerging of its success in helping people, particularly women and children, adapt to climate variability and reduce their vulnerability to climate impacts. With these impacts increasingly being felt across the world, there is an urgent imperative to increase resilience to climate change while fostering sustainable economic development on local, national and regional levels. Otherwise all the developmental achievements made so far will be completely undone.
Musonda Mumba, is Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EBA) Programme Coordinator, Climate Change Adaptation Unit (CCAU), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
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