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Improved reproductive health leading to improved ecosystem health

Posted by David.JOHNSON on Mon, 07/10/2019
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The topic which the nexus assessment should answer is the extent to which meeting the reproductive health targets of the SDGs would assist the conservation sector meet biodiversity targets.


It is unsurprising that the IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services makes very many references to population growth as a driver of biodiversity loss, such as: “For any values, population size is a big factor in scales of degradation (well established). Populations have been growing, globally, increasing 1.56 times since 1980 overall, and despite regional variations this growth is expected to continue − with implications for degradation”. Other of the numerous references to population include reference to pollution which “has been increasing at least as fast as total population” and wetland decline, where the report states “the global extent of wetlands has declined by 30% between 1970 and 2008 (Dixon et al., 2016), and total loss has been estimated to be as much as 87% (IPBES, 2018b). Losses were greatest in the tropics and sub-tropics, where population growth and agricultural expansion were also highest (UNEP, 2016c).” The relevance to biodiversity and ecosystems services of human population growth is therefore accepted, as is the related point that “decreases in fertility rates result not from an automatic ‘demographic transition’, based upon economic development alone, but instead from conditions including women’s empowerment and their access to family planning methods” (my emphasis). It is perhaps here that there is greatest opportunity to consider the nexus of human health a threats to biodiversity.

It is clear that future challenges are greater as the human population increases. But the extent of future population size is dependent on the provision of reproductive health services provided now. The three most commonly used United Nations’ global population projections for 2050 range from 8.8 billion (the low variant) to 10.8 billion (the high variant). The medium variant projection is 9.8 billion, but the actual number cannot possibly be known. The foundation for voluntary and human rights-based family planning dates back to the 1968 International Conference on Human Rights, which stated “parents have a basic human right to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children.” Yet obstacles to family planning remain half a century later, with current estimates that 214 million women of reproductive age in developing regions want to avoid pregnancy are not using a modern contraceptive method. Meeting their health needs would not only benefit women’s and girls’ health, empowerment and wellbeing (meeting targets under SDG3 and SDG 5) but also respond to environmental goals, all by responding to a universally acceptable human right.

The secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity joined with UNEP and the World Health Organization in calling attention to the impact of on-going human population growth on biodiversity and the importance of family planning in slowing that growth. The agencies wrote in the 2015 report Connecting Global Priorities: Biodiversity and Human Health, “In regions with the highest projected population growth rates, notably Sub-Saharan Africa, there remains a largely unmet need for access to contraception, a reduction of unwanted pregnancies, and the implementation of family planning policies.”  The phrase “unmet need” refers to women and girls who are sexually active and who wish to avoid pregnancy yet are not using modern contraception.

The nexus between human and environmental health should not only be thought of as one way (i.e. how healthy ecosystems benefit human health). If the reproductive health needs of women and girls were met there would be reductions in infant and maternal mortality and morbidity and a reduction in the fertility rate, reducing the rate at which the human population grows, reducing the upper level total human population would reach, and therefore reduce many anthropogenic pressures on biodiversity and ecosystems.