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Climate Change: Are South Asia’s ecosystems at the brink of extinction?

Climate Change: Are South Asia’s ecosystems at the brink of extinction?

Are South Asia’s ecosystems at the brink of extinction?

Road to Copenhagen

December 2, 2009 - South Asia is endowed with an exceptional array of biodiversity. Its vast geography spans several diverse ecosystems, from the mountains of the Himalaya-Hindu Kush, to the Thar Desert, and the coral reefs and atolls of Maldives.

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UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP 2001) notes that the region's ecosystems occupy about 3.6% of the world’s area but contain 16% and 12% respectively of the floral and faunal species found in the world.

But today South Asia’s natural resources face tremendous pressure from rapid population growth,” said Richard Damania, World Bank Lead Environmental Economist for the South Asia Region speaking ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark from December 7 to 18, 2009. “In addition, rapid economic expansion has led to unsustainable extraction of natural resources and accelerating levels of air and water pollution.”

Contributions of Ecosystems

It is seldom recognized, nor adequately acknowledged that the region’s ecosystems underpin the economic fortunes of its poorest and most vulnerable people. Poverty through much of South Asia has retreated to the rural hinterland and has become deeply intertwinned with resource degradation.

The region’s ecosystems support critical life-sustaining services (through soil formation, nutrient cycling, primary production, oxygen production, and habitats) and regulate processes crucial to well-being (air quality, climate, water flow, soil retention, water purification, and biological and disease control). Yet 10–30% of the region’s faunal species are currently under threat of extinction.

Biodiversity has been crucial in ensuring food security, nutrition, access to water, good health, and the environmental sustainability of the region,” said Damania. “Appropriate management of natural systems can therefore play a critical role in the development choices of the region."

Conservation Status

Impacts of Climate Change

Climate change and biodiversity are closely linked and each impacts the other. Biodiversity is threatened by human-induced climate change, but biodiversity reduces the impact of climate change. The presence of healthy biodiversity builds natural resilience to climate extremes: as an example, forests are nature’s social security check in times of disaster and crisis; additionally forests also act as a sink for harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

The loss of iconic species like the tiger are highly visible if we choose to look,” said Damania. “But there are more subtle impacts of degradation as ecosystems lose their ability to perform sequestration. This could aggravate the impacts of climate change."

This degradation can be managed and reduced through adaptive and mitigation strategies. This calls for a greater investment in protecting and enhancing ecosystem services, managing habitats for endangered species, creating refuges and buffer zones, and establishing networks of terrestrial, freshwater and marine protected areas that take into account projected changes in climate.

Risks to grazing, mountains and forests

Forests account for about 20–30 % of the total land area of India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka and about 68% in Bhutan. Savannas and dry forests are grazing areas for the region’s large population of livestock, which is essential to food security and agricultural draught. Climate change will affect the vegetation, productivity, and biodiversity of these ecosystems.

While climate change could improve forest productivity in the short to medium term, the resulting transformation of vegetation systems is likely to result in a loss of biodiversity and productivity as critical thresholds are reached.

The 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report projects that carbon fertilization may likely lead to net primary productivity gains in the short and medium term with the gains experienced in some forest types outweighing the losses in others. Some vegetation types are likely shift to higher elevations as a result of global warming. Some vegetation types may disappear in the process, together with dependent species and ecosystems.

Challenges facing marine ecosystems and coastal communities

Coral reefs are not unlike tropical rainforests in biodiversity and are important sources of tourism revenue. Along with mangroves they also protect coastal areas against erosion, sedimentation, floods, and storm surges. “Climate change will alter these ecosystems through changes in hydrology, sea level, sea temperature, and water chemistry,” said Damania.

The irreversible losses to biodiversity would adversely impact economic opportunities in coastal communities. Coral coverage in the Indian Ocean islands and South Asia combined has declined from more than 40% in 1997 to just over 20% in 2002. This is translating into losses to fisheries, mangrove ecosystem productivity, and tourism.

Future Directions

Damania stressed that the impact of climate change on ecosystems and biodiversity is a key development concern to be integrated into development programs and responses to climate change. He cautioned though that there were significant gaps in knowledge about these systems and the impact of changes within them. “Making good development choices now requires a considerable investment in knowledge building.”

Also critical would be vastly expanding the protected area networks that have been heavily degraded and fragmented in much of South Asia. So how does this agenda attract funding? Damania said donor development giants and funding for climate change adaptation are some obvious source but market-based instruments and the revenue-generating value of biodiversity itself are of full of potential.

Additional resources

South Asia Climate Change Program
For more information. Read More »

Kathmandu to Copenhagen: A Regional Climate Change Conference
For more information. Read More »

India: Climate Change Impacts in Drought and Floods
Looking at two drought prone regions in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, and one flood prone region in Orissa, the report finds that climate change can have serious impacts. Read More »

Emissions and Pollution in South Asia
This database include maps, charts and data tables. The information builds on a collection of data from the World Development Indicators. Read More »

World Bank Program in South Asia
Launching pad to all information on World Bank activities in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Read More »

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