A healthy community is dependent on a well-functioning ecosystem that contains fresh water, unpolluted air, and food security. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), "The atmosphere, fertile soils, freshwater resources, the oceans, and the ecosystems they support, play a key role in providing humans with shelter, food, safe water, and the capacity to recycle most wastes." Thereby, a healthy ecological condition promotes good health and prevents climate change.
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Importance of a Healthy Ecosystem
All living organisms play an essential part in the environment they live in. They interact with each other at different levels, which is essential for their survival. The ongoing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, caused by the global outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2), has yet again shown how animals, humans, and all ecosystems are intricately connected. The COVID-19 pandemic has proved that humans cannot single-handedly sustain a healthy life; instead, it requires rich biodiversity and healthy ecosystems to survive.
Scientists revealed that biodiversity provides an enormous amount of ecosystem services that are crucial for the well-being of humans. For instance, medicinal plants are globally used as a common traditional or complementary medicine to cure many diseases, and many plant species are often threatened due to the loss of biodiversity.
Medicinal plants are extremely important as, to date, many communities around the world are heavily dependent on traditional medicine, as they refrain from synthetic medicine. A healthy ecosystem ensures an abundance of natural resources (plants, animals, and microbes), essential for biomedical and pharmaceutical research.
Factors Behind the Changes in the Ecosystem that are linked to Global Health
According to a new report by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the WHO, continuous loss of biodiversity at an unprecedented speed has substantially affected human health.
Scientists have shown that human activities cause changes in native biodiversity and disturb the ecosystem's structure and function. These disturbances change the pattern of the population growth, for example, a reduction in the abundance of a particular species and an unproportionate increase of another species. These changes alter the natural interaction pattern among organisms and affect their surrounding physical and chemical environments. Importantly, disease-causing pathogens are sensitive to the disturbances in the ecosystem and, hence, such alterations affect disease reservoirs and mode of transmission.
An ecosystem is greatly affected by deforestation, uncontrolled urbanization, improper water management (e.g., unnecessary construction of dams and irrigation), resistance to chemical pesticides used to control specific disease vectors and land-use change. Climate plays an important role in the suitable functioning of the ecosystem.
Researchers stated that human health is dependent directly or indirectly on climatic conditions in marine and terrestrial ecosystems. The marine ecosystem is disturbed by ocean acidification which is affected by the levels of atmospheric carbon content. The terrestrial ecosystem is massively affected by climatic conditions, such as drought and flood, directly impacting agricultural production. These occurrences show how the well-being of humans, in terms of their nutrition, medical needs, and food security, is directly or indirectly dependent on a healthy ecosystem.
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Healthy Ecosystem and Human Health
An ecosystem contains both biotic (animals, plants, microbes, and humans) and abiotic (soil, temperature, water, and other physical conditions) factors. Biological diversity includes a plethora of flora, fauna, and microorganisms, which are extremely beneficial to human health, climatic changes, luxuriant agricultural production, and sustainable life. The health of an ecosystem defines the environmental conditions.
Scientists have claimed that many significant inventions related to pharmacological sciences and medicine have been possible due to a greater understanding of the earth's ecosystems and the importance of rich biodiversity. Researchers stated that the loss in biological diversity could slow the advancements in the pharmacological sciences, limiting discoveries of potential treatments for many known and unknown harmful diseases.
Human health and welfare depend on the various ecosystem products, for instance, the availability of food, fresh water, and fuel. Inadequate ecological services also indirectly affect human beings regarding their income, livelihoods, and local migration and even aggravate political conflict.
Assessment of Ecosystem Health
Ecosystem health is closely related to the association between disease burdens on the human community, biophysical changes, and socio-economic sustainability of human communities. It is important to assess ecosystem health because it sheds light on how changes in the ecosystem due to various factors have impacted human health in a global scenario. These assessments help researchers establish the critical linkages between human activities, human health, and ecological change.
Ecosystem assessments provide sets of indicators for easy diagnosis of ecosystem pathology. Such indicators enable the early detection of factors that could deteriorate ecosystem health. These studies are also associated with the identification of opportunities that could help recover damaged ecosystems.
Taking the example of air pollution, air pollutants must be assessed regularly as they can travel long distances linking ecosystems from various parts of the world—the WHO has estimated that globally around 3 million deaths are connected to air pollution. Pollution-induced depletion of the ozone layer allows UV radiation to reach the earth's surface, increasing the risk of skin cancer in humans.
Lichen is one of the environmental bioindicators that determines the health of ecosystems. Lichens are complex organisms that form a symbiotic relationship between two different organisms, typically a fungus and alga. These are regarded as keystone species of many ecosystems because they provide a home for many insects, nesting material for birds, etc. They are also sensitive to atmospheric pollutants, especially sulfur dioxide, thereby making them a great bioindicator of atmospheric pollutants.