The global crisis of biodiversity

Human impacts on nature vary in how long they last and how reversible they are. The more irreversible environmental harm is, the more important it is to stop it from occurring. Even if all human activities harmful to nature stopped now, their effects would go on for a long time. For example, it may take nature centuries to remove plastic pollution and lower carbon dioxide levels after we stopped using plastic and fossil fuels entirely.

When it comes to permanent harm to the planet, one impact of human activity stands out, i.e., extinction – the main result of anthropogenic impact on the environment. Many living species have been driven to extinction while many, including much of the large types, are at risk of extinction. Barring speculative advances in biotechnology, once a species goes, its loss is permanent.

But just what is the impact of extinction? Each and every species plays a role in the ecosystem. Living organisms form links in a net, and if a link is cut, the net becomes less effective in holding the eco system. When a species is lost, things usually become worse for other species.

For example, if the African bush elephant is driven to extinction by poachers, the African savannah will never be the same again because elephants play a big role in savannah ecosystem. They spread seeds and remove trees and shrubs to allow grass to thrive, which is food for smaller animals. The Asian and the Congo elephant cannot replace them as they are not as big and prefer to live in forests.

The big point of this article is not the damage that happens, but whether it can be reversed. Suppose the bush elephant only goes extinct in the wild but survives in zoos and circuses. Once thepoaching threat is brought down by improved law enforcement and decreased demand for ivory, bush elephants can be reintroduced into nature. The ecological damage can be reversed. This cannot happen if the last of African bush elephants on the planet die.

We will now look at what extinction means for civilization, for the humans that are causing extinction in the first place. The biosphere is one of humanity’s most valuable resources and many living things already are used in the shape of crops and livestock we raise. Their existence is sustained by us so they are not in danger. But there are many wild organisms harvested for usage. They are often at risk of extinction due to that because unlike in agriculture, we take but do not give back to them. There might be many possible uses in the biosphere which we do not know of yet. While agriculture is our main resource, every single living thing on Earth, every plant, animal, fungus, microbe, even virus, could conceivably be of use to us.

Take the same bush elephant. Unlike its Asian cousin, it is not amenable to training. But if we find a way to do so, it might be useful, being larger than the elephants from Asia and capable of more work. The Asian elephant has shown how valuable a resource elephants are. They are like giant working machines, strong, versatile, running on fuel that is found all around us. High intelligence is among their distinct traits, along with trunks that can lift 770 pounds. The most remarkable feature about them, perhaps, is the built-in safety compliance. Reportedly, in India once, an elephant was made to pick up logs and insert them into holes in preparation for a ceremony. The elephant did it dutifully but refused to fill in at one particular hole and stood holding the log in its trunk. The elephant rider went forward to take a look and saw that a dog was sleeping in the hole.

Asian elephants are domesticated and in no danger of going extinct, but to retain the possibility of being able to tame African elephant, we will have to keep the species alive. Elephants may come in handy if there is a widespread catastrophe causing disuse of machinery, or if technological collapse occurs from fossil fuels running out in the future. Humanity’s knowledge of the use of each species is evolving. Loss of species means ending the source of knowledge and its potential benefit forever.

Food is a major use of living things. Only those living things that are under cultivation present a reliable food supply for us. As world’s population swells, it may be important to expand the number of living things we rear. It could hold the key to ending hunger and alleviating poverty. But first, we have to make sure our footprint does not cause extinction of species.

Medicine is another major use. Medicine is all about the right chemicals and there is a huge variety of chemicals produced in the biosphere. Medicine has been harvested from wild species since time immemorial. We are now discovering new medicinal compounds as our exploration of the biosphere accelerates. Cancer drugs are being discovered in the ocean and antibiotics are being found in the Arctic. We never know what new medicine we may find in living things in the wild, as this knowledge frontier is open. If an organism with unique medicinal value goes extinct, we deprive human beings of a source that can save lives.

A lot of lives may already have been doomed in our ignorance, and more will, unless we take action. Species are going extinct at an alarming rate. It is estimated that dozens of species go extinct each day. In fact, many species may be going extinct without us even knowing they existed in the first place. For example, tropical rainforests are rich in bio-diversity and little-explored places. All the time, we are finding new species in these wild places. But rainforests are also being logged at a massive scale and unknown species may be vanishing along with the forest cover.

Biodiversity is the term referring to the variety of life on Earth and we are decreasing that variety every which way. There are three kinds of biodiversity, ecosystem diversity, which concerns relationships between species, species diversity, which concerns the existence of species, and genetic diversity, which is the variety of genetic material in existence, including the number of genes within a species. Just like every species may have an importance, so does every gene, so the latter two kinds of biodiversity is what we must protest most carefully. If ecosystem diversity is disrupted, it can be reversed. Imran Khan’s tree campaign is about reversing disruption. But extinction is irreversible and must be guarded against.

Preventing bad things from happening is a universal imperative. Preventing bad that is irreversible should be a priority. Extinction is an imperceptible and severe ecological crisis. Awareness of this crisis is necessary to prevent extinction. We need to discover the importance of each endangered species to ascribe priority to saving the most important ones.

We need to re-evaluate the charitable donations we make. We prefer giving to those who help the deprived of the world. Keeping in mind humanity’s future, we should also support organizations involved in conservation, scientific research, and bio-prospecting, which is the search for drugs and valuable products from living organisms.

This is an urgent wake-up call.

COLLABORATIVE DISASTER RISK REDUCTION IN CPEC

The China Pak Economic Corridor, CPEC, is one of the six planned corridors that form part of Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Launched in 2013, the other five corridors include Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIMEC), China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor (CICPEC) China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor (CCWAEC), China Mongolia Russia Economic Corridor, (CMREC) and New Eurasian Land Bridge (NELB).

The BRI vision is a paradigm shift in commerce. The pivot of high finance is shifting from the west to the east and the BRI is an embodiment of this revolution in the making. CPEC, BRI’s pilot project, has a comparative advantage over the other five corridors, which pass through more than two countries involving longer terrains and complex negotiations. CPEC is mere 3000 kilometer long (making it the shortest of the six corridors) that begins at China’s Kashgar in Xinjian and ends at Pakistan’s Gwadar at the Arabian Sea.

CPEC is the pivot of the new course Pakistan is taking to become a regional commercial hub. The collaborative priorities, as described in the November 2017 agreement between Pakistan’s minister for Planning, Development and Reform and his Chinese counterpart, earmark energy, transportation, IT networks, medical services, poverty alleviation, tourism, and rural development sectors.

A serious omission in CPEC priorities is China-Pak collaboration in disaster risk reduction. In an agreement titled “Long Term Plan for China Pak Economic Corridor, 2017-2030,” consisting of thirty eight pages and approximately seven and a half thousand words, disaster risk reduction is not mentioned even once. Despite the neglect, joint disaster risk reduction inevitably became a preoccupation of CPEC planners as the Pakistani and Chinese scientists from the National Institute of Oceanography and the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology, respectively, teamed up in early 2018 to study Gwadar’s seismic risk. Funded by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the expedition was necessitated by heightened seismic activity in the region, instead of being the outcome of a well thought out joint plan of disaster risk reduction R&D.

The regions of Pakistan and China constituting CPEC are known as disaster prone areas. Most of the higher than six MMI scale earthquakes in China since 1980 happened in Western China. According to the data from China Earthquake Network Center (CENC), since 1980, there have been 130 earthquakes between MMI 6 and 7, sixteen earthquakes between MMI 7 and 8, and two earthquakes higher than MMI 8 in China. Most of the earthquakes higher than MMI 6 took place in western China, consisting of Yunnan, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, Xizang (Tibet) and Xinjiang. Western China is, therefore, an earthquake prone area.

Gwadar’s topography makes it vulnerable to the hazards of flooding, cyclones, tsunamis, and earthquakes. Gwadar lies on the head of a peninsula surrounded by ocean on three sides, which makes it vulnerable to tsunamis. When and if a tsunami happens, it would hit Gwadar straight on, which is the worst kind of tsunami impact for urban infrastructure.

Gwadar is located right next to the epicenter of the 1945 earthquake that devastated the region at MMI 8.1. The Makran Trench is where the Arabian plate (which contains the Arabian Peninsula) is sub-ducting under the Eurasian Plate at 4 centimeters per year. By not quaking for several decades, the Makran Trench is building up elastic energy. Sub-duction zones produce up thrust earthquakes, which are the most intense type of earthquakes, causing large tsunamis. It should be borne in mind that in the earthquake of 1945, only part of the Makran Trench ruptured, comprising eastern half under Pakistan, not the part under Iran. If the entire Makran Trench was to quake, the earthquake could be a magnitude 9.2, same size as the 2011 earthquake that devastated Japan, the most disaster resilient country in the world.

The Long Term Plan for China Pak Economic Corridor states that “The CPEC will greatly speed up the industrialization and urbanization process in Pakistan and help it grow into a highly inclusive, globally competitive and prosperous country capable of providing high-quality life to its citizen.” (from website.) Despite overwhelming need for disaster risk reduction in CPEC, in this vision of prosperity of Ahsan Iqbal, regional collaboration in disaster risk reduction does not once appear as a priority. In “Restraint of Natural and Geographical Factors,” Xinjiang’s “weak industrial base” is listed, “cost of construction and management of operations in difficult terrain” is listed, “energy, infrastructure and governance deficiency” is mentioned. DRR appears nowhere on the document as one of CPEC’s challenges.

The risk of extreme weather phenomena, including strong cyclones, is higher. As a consequence of earth’s crustal movement, earthquakes is a clear and present danger. The terrain CPEC is built on is disaster prone. Alongside these hazards, CPEC gives Pakistan an unprecedented opportunity of availing Chinese expertise in collaborative disaster risk reduction. Pakistan’s deficiencies in financial and technological resources can be compensated if China partners actively in managing potential and real disasters in CPEC. It is better for Pakistan to seek foreign collaboration in a well-planned manner than to leave it to developments that be.

Pakistan’s legislature needs to make relevant laws and government needs to sign treaties on controlling water pollution, solid waste pollution, noise pollution, livestock epidemic emergencies and transportation and food scarcity hazards. Disaster risk reduction along CPEC needs to be made a priority area of tripartite collaboration between China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the third major investor in CPEC. Collaboration in DRR technology, including early warning systems and remote sensing, is a dire need of CPEC – a project mainly consisting of infrastructure development for uninterrupted commerce. Not just the infrastructure, but the communities along the CPEC also need to be safeguarded against natural and man-made disasters through collaborative action on awareness, mitigation and management of disasters.

The vision of a University at Gwadar, laid out in the CPEC agreement, must be revisited to create an international center of excellence in disaster risk reduction and disaster management studies, harboring a climate change and earth sciences resource center, equipped with state of the art technology and online connectivity to other Universities in Pakistan with similar programs. Scientists from China, Eurasia, and the larger international community of disaster and climate scholars should be visiting faculty, conducting joint research and imparting knowledge to Pakistan.

CPEC needs to be built as a “model” of disaster risk reduction and the sooner Pakistan and China paid attention to the importance of this joint venture, the better CPEC will serve its purpose.

Zeenia Satti is CEO of Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management. She blogs at https://zeeniasatti.wordpress.com/.