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Biodiversity: A Barricade from Novel Diseases

By Simon Weldemichael

The United Nations has warned that the Earth’s biodiversity is declining at “an unprecedented rate” at a virtual summit meeting held on 30 September. Over one million species have been reported to be at risk of extinction, two billion hectares of land is currently degraaded, and half of the global coral reefs have been damaged by human activity.

Biological diversity is defined in article 2 of the Convention on Biodiversity as “the variability among living organisms from all sources including, among others, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part: this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.” Biodiversity is essential to sustaining life by providing critical ecosystem services such as air purification, flood and drought mitigation, soil fertility and climate regulation. These services are indispensable to achieving human well-being and sustainable development. Biodiversity plays a critical role in the health of human beings by providing clean air, fresh water, medicines and nourishing food. It has impacted the economic, social, political and cultural life of humankind. Despite its importance, however, it is being lost globally at an accelerating rate.

The status of human health is determined by social, economic, behavioral and environmental factors. Health is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” The continued decline of biodiversity is reducing the ability of ecosystems to provide essential life-sustaining services, leading to negative outcomes for people’s health and their well-being. The loss of biodiversity, the degradation of the ecosystem and the prevalence of pandemics are common threats to the wellbeing of the global population.

The wellbeing and security of human beings ultimately depend on a well-functioning ecosystem that provides elements essential to human health. The health of the human population is determined, to a large extent, by environmental determinants of health. Environmental determinants of health such as air quality, healthy environment and food and water security are interrelated and adversely affected by the deterioration of the ecosystem. The impacts of climate change, pollution, deforestation and natural disasters on human health are clear. Food, whose primary purpose is to provide nourishment and health, is today turned into one of the biggest causes of health problems. A large segment of humanity is suffering from obesity, diabetes, cancer and many other diseases caused by the food people eat.

Our world is being shaken by the coronavirus pandemic, which has effectively challenged global health security and poses a significant threat to the global security, economic stability and development. It is becoming increasingly vulnerable to infectious diseases, creating a serious threat that requires collective commitment to manage. Global commitment to preserving biodiversity is one way of enhancing global defenses against potential pandemics. The WHO Constitution states that the “health of all people is fundamental to the attainment of peace and security and is dependent upon the fullest co-operation of individuals and States. The achievement of any State in the promotion and protection of health is of value to all.”

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which was presented at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, entered into force in December 1993. It is an international treaty for the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of the components of biodiversity and the equitable sharing of the benefits derived from the use of genetic resources. The Convention intended to address all threats to biodiversity and the ecosystem through scientific assessments, the development of tools, incentives and processes, the transfer of technologies and good practices and the full and active involvement of relevant stakeholders.

Eritrea ratified the Convention on Biodiversity on 9 September 1995 and acceded formally on 21 March 1996. As part of the commitment to conserve and enhance biodiversity, Eritrea has quickly prepared and adopted the National Environmental Management Plan in 1995 to be followed by various rules, guidelines and proclamations.

Eritrea is endowed with rich biodiversity and abundance of resources. It has about 600 bird, 136 mammal, 90 reptile and 19 amphibian species. Eritrea’s coastal, marine and island zone are home to diverse fauna and flora. Nearly 500 fishes and 44 genera of hard corals have been recorded. The climatic and geographic variations of the country create favorable conditions for the growth of different types of crops.

To date, various interventions have been made by the government to protect and improve the natural environment. Positive initiatives, including rural electrification, introduction of renewable energy, afforestation and reforestation programs, soil and water conservation techniques and dissemination of improved stoves have helped to heal the wounds of the natural environment. Realizing the current status, threats and trends of biodiversity in Eritrea, the government aims to “…ensure that by 2040 the state of the natural environment in Eritrea is stable and capable of ensuring people’s future well-being.” Eritrea has thus joined the race to make the world a better place.

As there is no duty bigger than to save the environment’s beauty, the conservation of biodiversity should be put at the top of strategies of national and global security. This is in line with the Sustainable Development Goals which aims to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt loss of biodiversity. Our world will continue as a life supporting planet only when we treat the natural resources as assets which must be turned over to the next generation.

The global defense against the existential threat of the COVID-19 pandemic can only be enhanced by multilateral cooperation. Like many other countries, Eritrea has been calling for the reform of international organizations to be able to address challenges like the pandemic adequately. In his recent address to the 75th UN General Assembly, Eritrea’s foreign minister, Mr. Osman Saleh, said: “The Pandemic has starkly exposed the structural flaws and deficiencies of the prevailing precarious economic and security global order… Indeed, in a rather perverted sense, the pandemic constitutes a wake-up call.”

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) also values the concerted intergovernmental cooperation. Article 5 of the CBD states that ‘Each Contracting Party shall, as far as possible and as appropriate, cooperate with other Contracting Parties, directly or where appropriate, through competent international organizations, in respect of areas beyond national jurisdiction and on other matters of mutual interest, for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.’

In his address at the Biodiversity Summit held at the UN, Mr. Tesfay Ghebreselassie, Eritrea’s minister of Land, Water and Environment said that the disruption in biodiversity is an existential threat to global health security. He related the COVID-19 pandemic to the destruction of biodiversity and added that it isa “a stark reminder of how the destruction of an ecosystem is causing greater interaction between humans and animals.” “The protection and maintenance of the biodiversity, the minister highlighted, “is our barricade from novel diseases.”

If human negligence is not corrected as quickly as possible, we will continue to live under constant threat. With an ever-growing population, degradation of biodiversity and greater animal-human interaction, there is great probability of the world being faced with more pandemics and outbreaks of diseases. Therefore, to strengthen our ability to counter infectious diseases, fundamental reforms of the international system and behavioral changes at individual level are crucial.

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