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World: Human Damage To Earth Reportedly Increasing

An international report released today says humans are damaging the earth at an unprecedented rate and raising the risk of mass deforestation or oceanic "dead zones." According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a UN-sponsored international monitoring group, the rise in human population over the past half-century has already led to the pollution or exploitation of over two-thirds of the world's ecological systems.

Prague, 30 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Until recently, the Paras Pani village in India's northern Uttar Pradesh state was grappling with a severe water crisis. Deforestation had not only rendered the land barren and arid, but had also led to the depletion of the ground water level.

But residents have tackled water scarcity by constructing small embankments for water harvesting. Villager Vishambhar Kharvar told Reuters a new dam under construction will allow the community to meet its irrigation needs and provide water for livestock: "If the dam is built, it would be very good. We will have sufficient water for drinking as well as for our livestock. Secondly, the water would also be used for irrigation. The water seeping into the ground makes the land moist and fertile. As you can see here, we got a good crop even with minimal irrigation."
"There is hope. And the hope is if we can change the way we do things -- our institutions, and our practices -- we can manage ecosystems sustainably."

The village of Paras Pani is one of the many communities around the world looking for quick solutions to the overexploitation of its ecological resources.

The issue is at the heart of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, an international study launched by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2001. The assessment, which was released today, comprises the research of over 1,300 ecological experts in 95 nations around the world.

Its message is grim: human activity is putting such a strain on the natural functions of the earth that it is not longer certain the planet will have the ecological resources needed to sustain future generations.

Marcus Lee, who works with the secretariat of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, spoke to RFE/RL from Beijing: "In the past 50 years, on a global scale, we have been changing the planet's ecosystems more rapidly and more extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history."

Since 1945, for example, more land has been transformed into farmland than in the 18th and 19th centuries combined.

Lee says overexploitation and pollution have allowed humans to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber, and fuel.

At the same time, however, they have also resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in ecological diversity.

According to the assessment, 10 to 30 percent of mammal, bird, and amphibian species are already threatened with extinction. Deforestation has led to less rainfall, putting in peril the forests that remain.

The report also says there is evidence that strains on natural resources could trigger abrupt changes, like the collapse a decade ago of cod fisheries off Newfoundland after years of overfishing.

A build-up of nitrogen from farming fertilizers that enter water waste could spur seawater algae growth that could choke fish or create oxygen-depleted "dead zones" along coasts.

The report also says that changes in the Earth's ecosystems could lead to a rise in human diseases such as malaria and cholera -- as well as raise the risk of new diseases emerging.

Lee notes that in Central Asia, the overexploitation of the water from the Amu-Darya and the Syr-Darya rivers for irrigation has led to the gradual evaporation of the Aral Sea: "That is a very good example. In the Aral Sea, the water upstream has produced certain benefits for agriculture. But it has caused other problems with the sea itself."

The sea's shrinkage is being compounded by a related health crisis among the local populations. They are now battling anemia, tuberculosis, and cancer believed to be linked to toxic residue left behind by 50,000 square kilometers of evaporated Aral Sea water.

Lee adds that Central Asian dryland ecosystems also are particularly vulnerable: "The issue there is on the land degradation, desertification, which in Central Asia may become more acute with climate change. Also the population is growing rapidly, where biological productivity is low and poverty is high."

Lee says the study, which will be presented to the leaders of the world's governments, recommends major changes in the use of natural resources. He says better education, new technology, and higher penalties for exploiters could put a brake on the damage being done: "There is hope. And the hope is if we can change the way we do things -- our institutions, and our practices -- we can manage ecosystems sustainably."

Lee says policymakers worldwide must look at issue of ecological damage and decide quickly how best to change course.