World Environment Day: We can tackle climate change through ecosystem restoration

We need to invest in research on ecosystems; we need governance that is multi-disciplinary and multi-agency and we need to protect what is left, if ecosystem collpase is to be prevented

By Sanket Bhale
Published: Friday 04 June 2021
The Shola grassland ecosystem of the Nilgiris. Photo: Sanket Bhale

With two devastating cyclones hitting our coasts in quick succession and the freakish glacier burst in Uttarakhand, 2021 is already turning out to be the year of extreme weather events. The multi-faceted impact of climate change is already staring at us.

A recent Union Ministry of Earth Sciences report on climate change concluded that India has already witnessed a rise in temperature, a decrease in rainfall, a rise in extreme weather events; and this trend is expected to continue apace in coming decades. As the world scrambles to put together a plan to mitigate climate change by reducing carbon emissions, we also need actions that help us cope with its inevitable impact.

The amount of damage climate change can cause and how well we can cope with them are closely linked to the ecosystems and their resilience. Ecosystems are the systems that comprise living organisms and their interactions with each other and their physical environments. These systems have evolved and sustained over millions of years by efficiently harvesting and recycling matter and energy.   

The ecosystems are all around us and they protect us from sea level rise and coastal storms (mangroves), reduce the severity of floods and droughts (wetlands, forests, rivers) and sustain our food systems (grasslands, coral reefs, pollinators). Recognising the importance of ecosystem, United Nations (UN) has declared 2021-2030 as the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and it is the theme for this year’s World Environment Day (June 5).

If we are to conserve and restore ecosystems, it is important to understand the complex but fascinating connections that comprise them. For example, in the Nilgiris hills that form a part of the Western Ghats range, Shola evergreen forests and grasslands mosaic form a unique ecosystem that sustains much of the region's biodiversity. '

Shola forests and grasslands have evolved to lock-in moisture and release it slowly, ensuring that the major rivers such as Moyar and Bhavani continue to flow even during the summer seasons. The biodiversity that inhabits this ecosystem, benefits from it and plays a critical role in sustaining it. 

Herbivores such as Nilgiri tahr, sambar deer and elephants recycle nutrients and spread grass seeds; birds and mammals help spread the seeds of fruiting Shola trees; birds, insects and bees help pollinate the plants; carnivores such as tigers, leopards and dholes control the population of herbivores, preventing overgrazing.      

This ecosystem has helped Nilgiris and the surrounding region cope with the impacts of climate change better. Between 2016-2018 , southern India experienced a three-year drought, the severest it has seen in more than 150 years. Perennial flows of the Moyar and Bhavani rivers, along with natural and human-made water structures, helped the region get through these difficult years.

The Nilgiris forest also dampened the effects of extreme floods this region experienced in the last two years. Unfortunately, the areas where the native grasslands and Sholas were replaced by exotic and invasive trees and tea gardens, have been much more prone to landslides.

There is ample evidence from across the country on how ecosystems are helping us cope with the effects of climate change. The role that mangrove forests in Odisha and West Bengal played in dampening Cyclone Amphan last year is well-documented.

It has been argued that the severity of the 2019 flood in Chennai was subdued in localities where wetlands and marshes were protected. The damage caused by the 2013 floods in Uttarakhand was exacerbated in areas where the barriers and structures were built in the floodplains that are a crucial part of the ecosystem of the meandering mountain rivers.

Climate change is putting a lot of stress on our ecosystems with changes in the physical environment. Still, we have also been further impairing the abilities of the ecosystems to bounce back from such stresses with encroachments, pollution, over-harvesting of the native species and introduction of invasive species. If we are to prevent the ecosystem collapse and adapt better to climate change, three things need to happen:

First, we need to invest in understanding ecosystems and their restorations better. We have barely scratched the surface on understanding the inter-connectedness of ecosystems.

There are fascinating examples from around the globe on how sea otters are key to the stability of the kelp forests in the western North Atlantic Ocean, how the recovery of wolves can restore forests and how crabs are re-shaping salt marshes as the sea levels rise.

There have also been similar attempts in India in understanding and restoring ecosystems. We need to encourage and more importantly, fund efforts into research on ecosystems and their restoration.  

Second, we need governance that is multi-disciplinary and multi-agency. Currently, we do not have governance mechanisms that enable a comprehensive custodianship. Different government departments are in-charge of managing narrow components of ecosystems.

We also often fail to recognise the role played by local communities in environmental governance. Yes, we have started experimenting with mechanisms like river basin management authorities to look at river ecosystems holistically, yet there is a long way to go.

Lastly, we need to ensure that we do not further damage and lose what is left. We need to ensure that our regulations and policies are working for the conservation of ecosystems. Regulations for pollution control, environmental clearances, impacts assessments, compensations and offsets need to take cognisance of entire ecosystems and not just the more obvious but limited site-level impacts. Otherwise, we would end up missing the forest for the trees.

Sanket Bhale is Team Lead, Western Ghats Nilgiris Landscape, WWF India

Views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth 

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