Environmental destruction may make pandemics more likely and less manageable, as disease risks are “ultimately interlinked” with biodiversity and natural processes such as the water cycle, say researchers.
“Ecosystems naturally restrain the transfer of diseases from animals to humans, but this service declines as ecosystems become degraded,” said study lead author Dr Mark Everard from the University of the West of England.
At the same time, ecosystem degradation undermines water security, limiting the availability of adequate water for good hand hygiene, sanitation and disease treatment,” Everard added in a paper published in the journal Environmental Science & Policy.
According to the researchers, disease risk cannot be dissociated from ecosystem conservation and natural resource security.
Using a framework designed to analyse and communicate complex relationships between society and the environment, the study concluded that maintaining intact and fully functioning ecosystems and their associated environmental and health benefits is key to preventing the emergence of new pandemics.
The loss of these benefits through ecosystem degradation – including deforestation, land-use change and agricultural intensification – further compounds the problem by undermining water and other resources essential for reducing disease transmission and mitigating the impact of emerging infectious diseases.
“The speed and scale with which radical actions have been taken in so many countries to limit the health and financial risks from Covid-19 demonstrate that radical systemic change would also be possible in order to deal with other global existential threats, such as the climate emergency and collapse of biodiversity,” said study researcher David Santillo from the University of Exeter.
The researchers said that the lesson from the Covid-19 pandemic is that societies globally need to “build back better”, including protecting and restoring damaged ecosystems keeping the many values of nature and human rights at the very forefront of environmental and economic policy-making.