The task for the future will be in re-connecting Homo Sapiensto Homo Symbiosis, that is people living once again in harmony in nature and with each other.
The relationship between human settlements and ecosystems is changing. Globalisation has caused these entities to fragment, creating an artificial separation and unresolved tensions and long-term threats.
An 'ecosystem' is a ’dynamic complex of plant, animal and micro-organism communities and their non-living environment interacting as a functional unit.' Building resilience will require thinking across cities as well as terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.
What needs to happen by 2030 or 2050 for this ‘functional unit’ to become a reality? What are the existential co-dependencies with nature that cities and human settlements must re-establish for a self-sustainable model in food production and healthy habitats?
The existential co-dependencies and opportunities arising from the use of new and emergent technologies need to be understood, analysed and considered, in order to establish possible pathways for transformative sustainable living without harming human health and the natural environment.
Every year, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), issues a Statement on the State of the Global Climate. Concentrations of greenhouse gases, particularly CO2, continue to rise and the results of this report demonstrate that climate change is already very visible in various ways according to the Secretary General of WMO Petteri Taalas.
Climate-related events already pose risks to society through impacts on health, food and water security as well as human security, livelihoods, economies, infrastructure and biodiversity.
Climate change also has severe implications for ecosystem services. It can affect patterns of natural resource use, as well as the distribution of resources across regions and within countries. Health effects include heat-related illness and death; injury and loss of life associated with severe storms and flooding; occurrences of vector-borne and water-borne diseases; exacerbation of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases through air pollution; and stress and mental trauma from displacement as well as loss of livelihoods and property.
In a dialogue about human habitats and ecosystems, the aspect of health becomes a ‘connecting catalyst’. Health is about people, wellbeing and how we interact in a positive or negative way with our immediate environment.
Before Covid-19 took hold, we spent 90 percent of our time at home, in the office or on public transport. It is projected that 68 percent of the world population will live in urban areas by 2050. It is fair to say that the relationship between human habitats and ecosystems is disintegrating at an alarming rate. Climate change is also having a detrimental effect on human health.
There is historic evidence that there is a link between the planet’s five major ecosystems and climate zones with traditional built environments as well as agriculture. This is because geography, climate, local resources and human ingenuity shaped the built environment for millennia.
The availability of natural resources in different climate zones shaped cities and villages, but also enabled the development of the first climate technologies. We can also align in principle these five major eco-systems with food production and the development of indigenous cultures; thus, we can provide evidence of a holistic and ecosystem-centred co-existence of people with nature developed for over 12,000 years pre-Industrial Revolution.
Since the Convention of Biological Diversity positions ecosystems as a ‘functional unit’, our eco-systems thinking needs to be horizontal if we are to follow the Koppen Geiger Climate Classification. We often talk about North-South, South-South and a triangle collaboration, and rightly so, but ecological transboundary collaboration is based on climate zones of the world and is therefore horizontal.
An approach to health from the perspective of basic human needs such as: clean air, water, food and shelter can offer a framework for contextualising impacts of climate change on health.
Air pollution kills around 7 million people. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that around 7 million people die every year from exposure to fine particles in polluted air that lead to strokes, heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and respiratory infections, including pneumonia.
The quality of air in cities is linked to the number of deaths and our wellbeing. Air pollution causes 1 in 9 deaths worldwide.
According to the latest air quality database, 97 percent of cities in low- and middle- income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet WHO air quality guidelines. However, in high-income countries, that percentage decreases to 49 percent.
Air pollution in Delhi affecting the poor is 41 percent due to vehicular emissions, 21.5 percent due to dust and 18 percent due to industries.
The other source of air pollution is connected to the adverse effect of climate change – desertification, droughts, dust and more recently, fires.
On any given day, between 10,000 and 30,000 bushfires burn around the planet. The issue is that these fires are all in different climate zones: from Brazil (tropical climate zone), Australia (sub-tropical) and Siberia (polar) and climate zone systems no longer behave as they used to.
It is the age of fire: between 1 July and 29 November 2019, there were 7,530 individual fires in NSW in Australia resulting in the deaths of six people and more than 600 homes destroyed - 4,700 homes were saved by firefighters.
The health effects of climate change will be unevenly distributed, and children will be among those especially harmed according to a new report from the medical journal The Lancet: “Their hearts beat faster than adults and their breathing rates are higher than adults.”
As a result, children absorb more air pollution, given their body size, than an adult would in the same situation.
Over 2 billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress (UN, 2018). We are in a situation where, in some regions, there is a lack of drinking water. There are 785 million people who lack a basic drinking-water service, including 144 million people who are dependent on surface water.
Globally, at least 2 billion people use a contaminated drinking water source. Contaminated water can transmit illnesses such as diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio.
On the other hand, we are also experiencing floods. The immediate health impacts of floods include drowning, injuries, hypothermia and animal bites. In the medium-term, infected wounds, complications from injury, poisoning, poor mental health, communicable diseases and starvation are indirect effects of flooding.
According to the FAO, more than 113 million people across 53 countries are experiencing acute hunger’ requiring food urgently. People experiencing hunger have higher levels of chronic illness and behavioural problems.
Globalisation – our capacity to import food and goods across continents has created an unhealthy food system.
Added to this, the lack of food is caused by environmental conditions – mainly droughts and desertification. Every year, 75 billion tons of fertile soil is lost to land degradation. It matters where we grow our food and whether it is monoculture or bio-diverse crops.
It is estimated that no less than 150 million people, or about two percent of the world's population, are homeless. However, about 1.6 billion, more than 20 percent of the world’s population lacked adequate housing in 2017.
An estimated 25 percent of the world's urban population live in informal settlements according to UN-HABITAT with 213 million informal settlement residents added to the global population since 1990 (UN-Habitat, 2013b: 126–8). These housing facilities tend to have very little ventilation, drainage and sewage facilities, with diseases spreading easily.
How do we begin to restore damaged planetary ecosystems and human health in light of these apocalyptic statistics and under the strain of Covid-19?
I believe that we need to reconnect in a new way to the planet’s ecosystems.
One of the problems we have is that three percent of the planet – human habitats and cities – is profoundly disconnected from the planet’s terrestrial ecosystem and food production.
A debate about linking human urban habitats with their surrounding areas has been ongoing since 1992 and The Agenda 21.
2019 was a year of ‘Urban and Rural linkages’ with several UN Agencies showing renewed interest in pursuing the topic, but a greater integration between aquatic, terrestrial and urban ecosystems is still needed to address the challenge of ecosystems integration for human and planetary health.
Solutions complementing this holistic thinking may be sought in technology, blockchain and AI in combination with the adaptation of indigenous knowledge systems.
Undoubtedly, there is hope in Dr Youssef Nasser, the UNFCCC Director of Adaptation Foresight and The Resilience Frontiers Initiative calling for holistic thinking.
Finding a diverse range of ‘connector – catalysts’ linking human habitats with food production, trade and commerce to geographical – horizontal ecosystems (including water) could bring some solutions.
Bio-regional collaboration might be at the forefront of future global efforts. The task for the future will be in re-connecting Homo Sapiensto Homo Symbiosis, that is people living once again in harmony in nature and with each other.
Dr Sandra Piesik is an architect and a researcher specialising in technology development and transfer. She is the founder of Habitat Coalition and a director of 3 ideas Ltd, UNCCD policy support consultant on Rural-Urban Dynamics, and a stakeholder in several UNFCCC and UN-HABITAT initiatives. She is the author of Arish: Palm-Leaf Architecture, and the editor of HABITAT: Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Planet, both published by Thames and Hudson.
This article is based on the UNFCCC COP25 Resilience Lab presentation by Dr Sandra Piesik on 7 December 2019. This article represents her personal views and is not an official position of the The Resilience Frontiers initiative.