1. What is an ecosystem?
When you look at a map of the world, what do you see? Politicians see continents and oceans. Politicians see regions like Africa and Asia or countries like Brazil or Germany. But ecologists see water and land, lakes and rivers, deserts and mountains. They call each of these units ecosystems, even if they are viewed at different scales – local or global.
An ecosystem is a dynamic complex of plant, animal, and microorganism communities and the nonliving environment, interacting as a functional unit. Humans are integral parts of ecosystems, and every ecosystem supports our lives in multiply ways, which in economic terms can be described as ecosystem services. Some of these services are obvious, such as water, food or natural resources, and others are not so obvious, such as nutrient cycling that maintains the conditions on earth. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, conducted in 2005, is the first major effort to analyse what the world looks like from such a biophysical standpoint.
Some examples of ecosystems:
Grasslands/savannahs, marine, coastal, inland water, forest and woodland, drylands, island, mountain, polar, cultivated and urban.
2. What are dryland ecosystems and why are they important?
Dryland ecosystems include three of the four types of dry areas we find in the world, including arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas. Deserts, known as hyper-arid areas, are the driest, but they are not generally considered part of the drylands in the context of sustainable development. You can find drylands on almost every continent. Drylands cover 35-40 per cent of the land mass or one-third of all terrestrial ecosystems. This is a large area when you consider that the remaining land is covered by, forests, lakes, mountains, urban areas, etc.
Desertification, defined as the final stage of land degradation in the drylands, has been a major challenge to the productivity and health of dryland ecosystems long before the impacts of climate change have become understood. Desertification affects Africa the most in terms of area, where two-thirds of the continent is desert or drylands, Asia is most affected in terms of people. About one-third of the world’s population lives in drylands, 90 per cent of whom live in developing countries.
Drylands ecosystems, with their vast open spaces and fragile soils, are sensitive to even slight climate and weather variations. These variations are already apparent in places like the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Middle-East and their negative impacts are becoming more and more evident at country and regional levels. Agricultural productivity is falling, people are fleeing, or even dying, from drought, famine and flood related disasters. More and more conflicts over scarce water resources are emerging.
People in the drylands are among the most vulnerable to climate change because the majority earn their livelihoods as pastoralists and farmers. Without fertile land, they cannot survive. Many dryland communities in the developing world have no or very little social support or benefits from their governments.
While drylands are one type of ecosystem, they are often a mosaic of complex habitats such as forests, lakes, rivers, coasts, mountains, grasslands and rangelands. They are susceptible to droughts and desertification, but also floods and other elements like saline that can cause erosion and degradation.
The health and productivity of drylands extend far beyond the people living there. As the “breadbasket of the world,” the drylands are home to nearly half of livestock and cultivated systems globally. They also contain habitat for indigenous plants and drought-resistant strains of seed for use by future generations that will be critical as the climate changes and the population grows.
3. What is Adaptation?
Scientists warn that the climate is changing abnormally fast and in ways that could significantly disrupt our livelihoods and security, from our economies and infrastructure to the social and ecological systems we depend on. Climate change is affecting biodiversity and ecosystem functioning and the many benefits that they provide to society.
Terrestrial ecosystems are vulnerable to climate change for two reasons. First, climatic impacts may be too severe for an ecosystem to withstand them. For example, heavy and sudden downpours wash away fertile soil. Prolonged drought destroys soil nutrients. If these phenomena become a normal part of the local weather, soil erosion will exceed the natural rate of soil formation and degrade the land irreparably.
Second, how we use the ecosystems increases their vulnerability to climate change. For instance, natural processes of soil erosion could be accelerated by the continuous and unsustainable farming and livestock practices. As a result of misuse, land can turn into a hard crust that does not allow for water to infiltrate and replenish underground water sources. Soon, the water levels in lakes and rivers would decline, shrink or disappear altogether.
Adaptation refers to actions taken to ensure that these negative impacts are prevented or minimized and that both people and ecosystems are equipped to withstand potential damage. Adaptation strategies involve a range of actions, including behavioural change, technical or hard engineered solutions such as construction of sea defences or risk management, and disaster reduction strategies such as the establishment of early warning systems.
There is growing recognition of the role healthy ecosystems can play in adaptation, known as ecosystem-based adaptation. These so-called natural solutions are based on sustainable land and water management as well as the restoration of degraded ecosystems. These efforts require investments and leadership at all levels, from global policy makers, to community leaders, to scientists and farmers.
4. What is Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA)?
Ecosystems are complex and interconnected. They are naturally adaptable and resilient-- up to a point. When ecosystems are healthy, they can better adjust to the effects of climate change and related disasters. Sustainably-managed ecosystems reduce the vulnerability of people to climate change impacts and hazards.
Ecosystem-based adaptation implies the strengthening of natural systems to cushion the worst impacts of climate change. A commonly used definition comes from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN): “Sustainably managing, conserving and restoring ecosystems…to provide the services that allow people to adapt to climate change.”
Think of EbA as “adaptation powered by nature”, where the goal is to boost the resilience of natural ecosystems and the services and species that support them, so that they are prepared for the impacts of climate change. The concept of EbA is relatively new, and it is still being developed and tested in the field.
Types of Ecosystem-based Adaptation
- Sustainable water management, where river basins, aquifers, flood plains and their vegetation are managed to provide water storage and flood regulation
- Disaster risk reduction, where restoration of coastal habitats such as mangroves can be effective against storm surges, saline intrusion and coastal erosion
- Sustainable management of grasslands and rangelands, to enhance pastoral livelihoods and increase resilience to drought and flooding
- Establishment of diverse agricultural systems, incorporating indigenous knowledge, and maintaining genetic diversity of crops and livestock
- Strategic management of shrublands and forests to limit size and frequency of uncontrolled forest fires
- Establishing and effectively managing protected areas systems to ensure the continued delivery of ecosystem services that increase resilience to climate change.
5. What are the benefits?
Healthy ecosystems provide a variety of services such as drinking water, habitat, shelter, food, raw materials, genetic materials, a barrier against disasters and the formation and regeneration of the natural resources in the ecosystem that people depend for their livelihoods.
Ecosystems are natural safeguards that are often more effective and cheaper to maintain than physical engineering structures, such as dykes or concrete walls. For instance, planting trees to improve water infiltration and replenish underground water sources is often cheaper and more sustainable than building a new water supply system.
The rural poor living in the drylands and beyond can greatly benefit from EbA, which can be readily integrated into existing community-based approaches to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought. EbA strategies are also compatible with many of the ways local and indigenous populations manage their environments, and can help support the adaptive capacity of local communities and indigenous groups. Ecosystem-based adaptation strategies offer significant opportunities to strengthen the links between conservation, agriculture, water and land management and drought prevention.
Examples of benefits of EbA
• Food security
• Preservation of genetic materials
• Water security
• Soil health
• Barriers to disaster
• Erosion prevention
• Conservation of biodiversity
• Drought prevention
• Regeneration of natural resources
• Empowerment of the rural poor
• Incorporation of indigenous knowledge
• Holistic approaches to develop-ment, non-siloed approach
6. How does it work in practice?
Ecosystem-based adaptation practices include the sustainable management, conservation and restoration of ecosystems to provide those services that help people adapt to both climate variability and climate change. For the drylands, sustainable land and water management or integrated land and water management practices are also be considered EbA.
Examples of EbA Approaches
1. By popularizing the concept of Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR), World Vision Australia has changed how thousands of farmers manage their land, particularly in West Africa, by helping them cultivate buried root systems or "underground forests," in degraded landscapes, over time restoring productivity.
2. Through mobilizing local populations to care for common lands, the Foundation for Ecological Security in India has restored 200,000 ha of common property rangelands through holistic landscape approaches that empower communities in India.
3. By mobilizing farmers and small land holders to restore a vital watershed in Central Mexico, Consejo Civil Mexicano para la Silvicultura Sostenible
has shown how an integrated landscape approach can be a cost-effective sustainable development strategy for an entire region. Watch a Video
7. What are the challenges to implementing EbA?
Ecosystem-based adaptation initiatives still face a range of barriers. At the national levels, the different ecosystem services and functions are managed by diverse stakeholders and sectors that often do not work in a coordinated fashion. For instance, managing water resources in an ecosystem may be under the department of water, facilitating access to the trees and other products under the department of forests, and land for farming under the department of agriculture. If all are working independently in their silos, competition over the use of services could lead to degradation.
EbA requires consultation and engagement with the people that depend on the resources. This may be hindered by the lack of access to the required information and knowledge, the inability of local communities to participate in forums where the decisions on ecosystem management are being undertaken, or even alienation as urbanization takes people further and further away from the ecosystems that provide them with various services.
EbA is an emerging ecosystem management approach within the evolving context of climate change. As with all new practices, it will take time for people to understand and implement EbA. Some may fear that it will impose a new financial burden. Others may feel threatened by the loss of control over the current processes they use to manage ecosystems and seek to co-opt it by re-naming their old practices as EbA instead of integrating the missing principles of EbA into existing processes.
8. Supporting a future for ecosystem-based adaptation
As policy makers and leaders at all levels prepare their strategies for climate change adaptation and mitigation, there is a need for greater attention and investments in land-based adaptation strategies, such as:
- Include land management related targets and indicators in the Sustainable Development Goals and post-2015
- Encourage ecosystem-based adaption in the drylands and beyond
- Rehabilitate degraded land to increase climate change resilience
Increase recognition of the role of ecosystem based adaptation, especially in the drylands, within the negotiations of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biodiversity
- Build technical and institutional capacity for sustainable land management
Create national and sub-national policies for drought mitigation and prevention.