The United Nations declared 2021-2030 as the "Decade on Ecosystem Restoration". Such declarations bring us both good news and bad. First, the bad news: the nature is really in a very bad shape, which is why the UN had to dedicate a whole decade to raising awareness and taking actions to make it better. The good news is, we are at least recognising ecosystem degradation as a global crisis. And, we may expect some concrete local, national, and global initiatives to restore the health of our ailing ecosystems.
The problem with our approach to biodiversity loss and ecosystem destruction is that we understand the crisis, but do not do much about it. It may seem that the issue of biodiversity conservation has been pushed aside over the last year or so due to the pandemic. But it is not true. The UN's efforts to save the world's biodiversity, through its Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), have failed repeatedly. Our progress in respect of the "2010 Biodiversity Targets" (2002−2010), "Decade on Biodiversity" (2011−2020), and the "2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets" is not something to be proud of. Over the last 50 years, for example, the world has lost 35 percent of its wetlands and about 70 percent of mammals, birds and fish populations. Now, one in every eight plant and animal species are counting days to become extinct over the next few decades.
Despite such a gloomy situation, we have something to look forward to. Over the last couple of years, we have been learning about a relatively new concept called nature-based solutions (NbS). It is basically bringing together all the good things we can do with our ecosystems—by protecting them, sustainably using their resources, restoring them when they get damaged, and creating new ecosystems where possible. But the best part is, while doing all of these, we not only get benefited socially and financially, but our biodiversity and ecosystem functions get benefited as well. That's why this concept has been increasingly in the climate change and biodiversity conservations in recent years.
Nevertheless, there is some confusion about what can be, or cannot be, called an NbS, which needs to be clarified. But first, let us look into some examples.
Protection of the Sundarbans or Lawachara National Park in Sreemangal is an NbS as it protects us from storms, supports our livelihoods, offers us recreation, and gives shelter to a magnificent diversity of plants and animals—small or big, slow or fast. Restoration of the Balu River of Dhaka as well as that of hijal-karoch bag (swamp forests) in the haor wetlands of greater Sylhet are also two such initiatives as these improve both human and biodiversity wellbeing. Restoration of urban wetlands and canals to pass rainwater, as we did with Hatirjeel in Dhaka, also gives us multiple benefits by allowing water transportation, increasing recreational space, and of course, improving biodiversity. Green roofs and tidal parks with sufficient plant diversity are examples of urban NbS practiced around the world.
Sustainable management of wetlands like Tanguar Haor in Sunamganj is another example, as it supports community development and biodiversity improvement. Creation of new green spaces or green parks with a healthy plant diversity in our towns and cities is also an NbS, as is the creation of a coastal green belt with mangrove plants along Bangladesh's shoreline over the last 55 years.
Our conventional, production-centric crop agriculture and aquaculture are vital natural resource management practices, but they are not nature-based solutions. These give us food and economic security, but not biodiversity benefits. But if indigenous crop varieties are cultivated enhancing the agro-diversity of a region, or a farming system uses ecosystem processes and improves soil health and biodiversity, these may match the definition of such solutions. Similarly, Bangladesh's traditional water hyacinth-based floating agriculture is an NbS as it controls invasive species, like water hyacinth, facilitates aquatic biodiversity, and reduces use of chemicals in agriculture.
It has been suggested that planting a trillion trees on a billion hectares of land all over the world could remove a significant amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and make the Earth cooler. Studies have shown that biodiversity-rich forests can store two times more carbon than single-species plantations. Despite that, if we go for monoculture plantations, it cannot be called an NbS. Because, it is not supporting any net biodiversity gain—a core feature of such a solution.
Bangladesh has around 50 small to large protected areas including two marine ones—Swatch of No Ground and Nijhum Dwip. The declaration and management of all these areas could be called NbS, provided they give benefits to both people and biodiversity. But if we are not sure what societal problems these protected areas are addressing, if they are not large enough to create a significant impact, if ecosystem integrity is not ensured, and if the local people are not made part of the planning, management and benefit sharing, then these cannot be called nature-based solutions.
We often see conservation projects intended to save a particular wildlife species, such as dolphin, elephant, tiger, turtle, or vulture. These often include population surveys, awareness campaigns, habitat protection, ensuring food availability, captive breeding, and enforcing laws to stop illegal wildlife trade. If such interventions do not offer wider ecosystem and human benefits, these can be called species conservation initiatives, but not NbS.
In recent decades, we have had many good practices aimed at making the world a better place, for example, by switching from single-use plastic products to natural alternatives. The use and reuse of jute, cotton or paper bags instead of plastic bags, cloth masks instead of surgical masks, bamboo straws instead of plastic straws, and dried-leave plates instead of plastic plates are commendable environment-friendly practices. But these should not be called nature-based solutions just because these are using natural products—because there are no direct biodiversity or ecosystem benefits involved.
As we start the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, nature-based solutions will remain a key approach to restore degraded ecosystems in the years to come. With the theme "Restore Our Earth", the Earth Day 2021, observed on April 22, also echoes this vision. It is, therefore, important that we understand this concept properly and avoid its misuse in our initiatives regarding climate change, biodiversity conservation and environmental protection.
Dr. Haseeb Md. Irfanullah is an independent consultant working on environment, climate change, and research systems. His Twitter handle is @hmirfanullah