According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the world loses about 10 million hectares of forest (about 114,763 km²). It also revealed in a report that the degradation of ecosystems is already affecting the lives of about 40% of the world’s population and that soil erosion and other forms of degradation cost the global economy more than US$6 trillion per year in lost food production and other ecosystem services.
Robust and functioning ecosystems support life and provide essential services for it like food, shelter, water, and other essentials. In addition, they have cultural, historical, aesthetic, and systemic value to humans.
Bringing it back to Africa, the continent’s key ecosystems like forests and coasts are currently under pressure. These ecosystems are important to specific living species only known to exist in these systems because they provide the living conditions for them to thrive. This also includes human populations.
The ecosystem depletion in Africa is being caused by a number of factors, with the first factor being human activities (agriculture, industrial pollution, and mining activities).
Agriculture is reducing the forest cover in many African countries in sub-Saharan Africa that rely on cash crops for economic enrichment. Also, increased food production means a much greater increase in land dedicated to agriculture. Fishing activities are also disrupting aquatic life and leading to fish depletion.
In addition, industrial pollution is putting the continent’s ecosystem under threat. From the disposal of industrial wastewater into coastal habitats to toxic gasses being released into the atmosphere, these industrial activities are a contributing factor to the depletion of key ecosystems.
Furthermore, mining operations in Africa are being carried out without regard for the environment and other infrastructural limitations. This has put avoidable pressure on the environment — polluting the atmosphere, soil, and water, and disrupting the fragile geographical balance in the area within which they carry out their mining activities — and caused inconveniences to the people living in the mining areas.
A second contributing factor to ecosystem depletion in Africa is climate change. The effects of climate change on ecosystems and species are likely to be exacerbated in ecosystems that already are under pressure from human activities.
Climate change is causing extreme weather events such as drought and floods and this can overwhelm the capacity of ecosystems to mitigate these events.
You see, healthy systems have natural ways of mitigating the effects of natural extremes or disasters. For example, mangrove forests protect coastal regions from floods while forests and vegetation protect mountainous areas from landslides and erosion. However, the moment these ecosystems are disrupted, it will lead to a total ecosystem collapse and humans, as well as other species, will suffer.
What can be done
No doubt, Africa’s ecosystems and species are threatened and this requires protection to prevent them from disappearing totally. However, actions on preserving key ecosystems require different approaches instead of just focusing on one ecosystem or species.
These can be by restoring part of a forest or protecting groups of key species that constitute the key ecosystems. It can even be by using regulating customary rights to ensure the sustainable use of ecosystem products.
The United Nations has already proposed restoration as one of the solutions to halt forest cover loss in African countries. Also, the UNEP is championing agroforestry to reduce the impact of agricultural pressure on ecosystems. According to UNEP, restoring forests and other watershed ecosystems could save water utilities in the world’s largest cities $890 million a year in water treatment costs.
Protecting ecosystems is beneficial and important to both humans and biodiversity and this is not only from a conservation point of view but also from a social and economic one.
Educating communities on the importance of ecosystem preservation as well as advocating for the protection and sustainable use of these ecosystems can prevent them from being destroyed and by extension, conserve the biodiversity within them and the human population that depends on them.