Urbanization, land use, global trade and industrialization have led to profound and negative impacts on nature, biodiversity and ecosystems across the world. The ongoing depletion of natural resources not only affects environmental conditions but also has an enormous impact on the health, well-being and security of societies. Exploring this complex relationship and the vital role that nature plays for promoting and protecting human health, and in recognition of the International Day for Biological Diversity on 22 May, WHO/Europe has published its first report on nature, biodiversity and health together with the WHO Collaborating Centre on Natural Environments and Health at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The ongoing degradation of biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress towards most of the assessed targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and has been identified by many policy frameworks and conventions as one of the most urgent challenges for global action. This report represents a call to action for local and national governments to promote, support and enhance both nature and ecosystems worldwide. One fundamental basis for such action is to consider the implications of policies in various sectors on nature and biodiversity, following the One Health approach and implementing the “WHO Manifesto for a healthy recovery from COVID-19: Prescriptions for a healthy and green recovery from COVID-19”.
In providing an overview of the impacts of the natural environment on human health, the report covers such diverse topics as the health relevance of freshwater systems; air quality; coasts, seas and oceans; soil, agriculture, nutrition and food security; infectious diseases emerging from human-wildlife interaction; microbial diversity; medicine and health care; and green and blue spaces.
It presents the ways nature and ecosystems can support and protect health and well-being and describes how nature degradation and loss of biodiversity can threaten human health.
These findings can be summarized in 3 key messages.
- Nature provides the basic conditions for human health. For example, nature can be essential to purify water or regulate air quality, and it enables soil formation and food production on land and in seas. It is a resource for traditional medicines and provides opportunities for new pharmaceutical discoveries. The natural environment provides inspiration and settings for healthy lifestyles and social contact. Collectively, these provisions are known as ecosystem services.
- The environment protects human health. While nature itself can also present health risks, intact, functioning and resilient nature can help to mitigate extreme events and the effects of natural disasters, and to limit human exposure to pathogens.
- Pressure on natural environments threatens human health. Processes such as climate change, resource depletion and loss of biodiversity contribute to the increasing frequency of extreme events, threaten ecological collapse and affect food systems. Environmental change is also resulting in conflict and the displacement of people, with consequent health impacts.
Overall, this aims to inform policy- and decision-makers in the health and environment sectors, as well as other sectors involved with the protection, management and use of nature and biodiversity. It is also intended to support planners and decision-makers that may not be experts on nature and biodiversity but seek ways to consider the health aspects of natural and biodiverse environments locally.