Environmental Index Could Save Rural Communities
Monday, April 23, 2012
By creating the world’s first long-term record of ecosystem health, Chinese and UK researchers have identified where specific social and economic policies have damaged the environment in eastern China.
The work shows that wealth generation over recent decades is damaging essential ecosystem services on which the poorest rely – things like food, fuel, and clean water.
What makes this approach different is the historical perspective. By revealing trends over decades researchers can separate natural causes of change from man-made ones, and set benchmarks for ecosystem health that will inform environmental and social policies.
Identifying what causes these trends will help policy-makers prioritise their actions to improve the balance between short-term economic growth and long-term poverty alleviation.
The research team, led by Professor John Dearing from the University of Southampton, found their environmental evidence in sediment cores taken from two lakes in the lower Yangtze basin, covering the period 1800-2006.
The researchers looked at several indicators of the health of the surrounding ecosystem, contained in the sediments – for example, pollen remains indicate the diversity of plant species in the region while metal content is a sign of air quality.
They then compared evidence for ecosystem services like soil stability, air and water quality with socio-economic and climate records so they could see if different approaches to economic development or agriculture had benefited or harmed these key ecosystem services.
For example, intensive agriculture has lifted many Chinese rural communities out of poverty over the last 30 years. But the irrigation, mechanisation and fertilisers that came with it have degraded soils badly and there is already evidence for declining water quality.