Philippines: Healthy ecosystems means resiliency, faster recovery against climate change

Jonathan L. Mayuga Business Mirror 11 Dec 16;

Scientists say there is a direct link and evidence that biodiversity boosts the resiliency of ecosystems against the impacts of climate change—a reason the protection and conservation of the country’s rich biodiversity can never be overemphasized.

Experts believe that the country’s strength or resiliency against intense typhoons and extreme weather events, like prolonged wet or dry season, is anchored on natural defense—the diversity of habitat-forming species both in land and in water—which are seriously threatened by destructive activities. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is at the forefront of defending the country’s rich biodiversity against various threats brought about by human pressures.

The unbridled development—pushed by rapid urbanization and expansion, human encroachment of forest and coastal habitats for agriculture, fisheries, residential and commercial purposes, tourism and other development projects, such as mining, quarrying, logging and land reclamation—weakens the country’s natural defense against natural calamities.

While the Philippines remain as one of the 18 most megadiverse countries in the world, it is also a biodiversity hot spot because of the rapid loss of biodiversity.

Illegal wildlife trade, hunting for food and trophy, also contributes to the extinction of species.

Serious threat

In the Philippines the more serious threat to biodiversity is the effects of climate change, which are strongly felt in coastal and marine environment.

Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim of the DENR’s Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) underscored the need to protect and conserve the country’s rich biodiversity to strengthen the country’s resiliency against natural calamities and effects of climate change that may hasten the extinction of vulnerable species.

Lim, who is currently in Cancun, Mexico, for the 13th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP13) to the Convention on Biological Diversity, said there is a direct link between climate change and biodiversity loss.

With the theme, “Mainstreaming Biodiversity for Well-being,”COP13 focuses on biodiversity and ecosystem services, and their contribution to sustainable development.

Altering animal behavior

Climate-change has strange effects on animal behavior. Various studies suggest that sudden change in temperature alter migration patterns of marine mammals and waterfowls, affecting feeding habits, breeding and reproduction eventually leading to imbalance, or worse, species extinction.

Sightings of animals outside their natural habitats is a sign of change in animal behavior.

Lim cited the behavior of marine mammals—like whales, dolphins and sharks—marine turtles and even migratory birds during the peak of El Niño in 1997 can be attributed to the extremely hot weather. Climate change’s effect on animal behavior, in particular, and life cycles, she said, offer scientists an opportunity to study the effects of climate change in the Philippines and contribute to the global effort to mitigate its adverse impact to biodiversity.

Sea-level rise

Vincent Hilomen, executive director of the DENR-BMB’s Coastal and Marine Division, said climate change affects coastal and marine ecosystems in varying degrees.

Sea-level rise, coral bleaching, ocean-temperature rise and ocean acidification are taking place globally.

Marine scientists have observed these climate-change effects to the country’s coastal and marine environment for decades, Hilomen said.

Sea-grass beds and mangroves are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise. The deeper the ocean become, the harder it is for sunlight to reach sea-grass beds, preventing photosynthesis.

In such case, sea grass and other plants, such as seaweed, which are food to a wide variety of fish and other marine animals, will eventually die, Hilomen said.

Certain species of mangroves, he added, can only survive on brackish water. Such species will be the first to go in case of sea-level rise.

“If their particular species can tolerate low level of salinity, then they will die in case of sea-level rise,” he explained.

Threats to corals

Supertyphoons that trigger storm surges, meanwhile, cause massive destruction of coral reefs. This, he said, have devastating impact on a wide variety of fish species.

El Niño, or extreme heat, also triggers bleaching that may lead to the death of corals, forcing fishes to migrate and find healthy ecosystems, where they can feed and breed.

“In 1997 and 1998 the Philippines experienced intense El Niño. This caused massive bleaching of corals. Nearly 90 percent of our corals died. In fact, the coral in Bolinao, [Pangasinan], has not yet recovered until now,” he said.

Corals are breeding and feeding ground of spawning fish.

They provide protection to small fish against predators, thus, allowing them to grow and replenish the ocean with fish for people to catch and feed human population.

Ocean acidification

Ocean acidification caused by excessive emission of carbon is the most feared effect of climate change to coastal and marine environment. While the ocean is a big carbon sink, its carbon-absorption capacity would soon reach breaking point because of excessive carbon emitted into the atmosphere.

“Ocean acidification weakens all species—from corals, fish, seaweed and sea grass. This will definitely affect food security,” Hilomen said.

He said the Philippines is on the right track in joining other countries to cut carbon emission under the 2015 Paris Agreement. Limiting the global temperature increase to below 2 degrees Celsius by 2030 means deep cuts on carbon emission.

The Philippines, although not a big emitter of greenhouse gas, committed to reduce by 70 percent its carbon emission by 2030, subject to assistance it gets from developed countries.

Scientists have warned that global-temperature increase of 2˚C would spell not only the extinction of animal and plant species, but the human population, as well. “It is only right to demand accountability from big polluters. But we should also do our part in reducing our own carbon footprint,” he said.

Resiliency, faster recovery

Having healthy ecosystems and rich biodiversity make the ecosystems, whether in land or water, resilient to climate change.

Dr. AA Yaptinchay, director of Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines, said there are various studies that suggest the direct link between biodiversity and climate change.

“Climate change affects everything. Change in temperature, sea level, even the chemistry of the water will impact any living thing in the ocean,” he said. Water-temperature increase, he said, will change water current. “Certain organisms have specific habitat preferences. There are species that prefer to stay in coral reefs. Change in temperature, say increase in temperature, will drive them away or they will die because they will not survive unless they move to higher latitude,” he said.

Migratory species, he added, will be affected once the food source becomes scarce or vanishes.

“Our problem in the tropics is that fish will not go here because they would go in higher latitude,” he said. Yaptinchay underscored the need to maintain a healthy ecosystem, whether in land or water, to strengthen the resiliency and allow faster recovery in the event of climate-change effects.

The richer the biodiversity, he said, the higher the probability of species surviving, allowing the food chain to have minimum disruption. “Think of it this way. If you have only three species and lost one, it will be harder for the two other species to survive. Whereas, if you have a thousand species, and you lose one specie, you still have hundreds of species left, allowing a higher chance of survival for other species,” he said.

The diversity of species, he said, also allows faster recovery in case of damage to ecosystem, citing the case of coral bleaching, which will allow faster recovery if coral-reef fish continue to dwell on other parts of the reef. “The fish will eat the algae on this coral. Without fish, the algae will grow on the coral. It will later die. Once algae starts engulfing the coral, new coral will not grow,” he explained.

“The diversity of ecosystems allows interaction that makes it healthy and strong. The Philippines is one of the most diverse when it comes to marine biodiversity. What we need is to prevent the threats, protect our biodiversity to maintain the services the ecosystem will provide, to combat climate change,” he said.

Protecting the marine environment

According to Lim, the DENR-BMB’s strategy to mitigate the impact of climate change is to strengthen the protection of existing marine protected areas.

That way, she said, habitat-forming species from mangroves to sea grass and corals will be protected against destructive human activities, ensuring the survival of fish and other marine life that thrive within.

The DENR, however, is taking a different tack in rehabilitating damaged marine ecosystems, which Hilomen said would cost around P500,000 to P5 million per hectare.

“We don’t have the resources for massive rehabilitation. What we are going to do is to reduce the threat and protect our marine environment against destructive activities to allow natural rehabilitation,” he said.

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