On World Environment Day last June, the UN General Assembly declared 2021-2030 to be the "decade on ecosystem restoration". Even though this call for concerted action to protect and restore our ecosystems was made when countries were still struggling with Covid-19, the pandemic had already reminded us of the value of biodiversity to our health and well-being.
Led by the UN Environment Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the declaration was a recognition that adequate progress on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals hadn't been made, and that we had failed collectively to address climate change. More importantly, however, It was a clarion call to put nature on the path to recovery.
There was good reason for this.
An estimated 75 per cent of the terrestrial environment and more than 60 per cent of the marine environment have been degraded globally. The degradation of land alone is estimated to affect the well-being of more than 3.2 billion people – or 40 per cent of the total global population – according to a report published by the Germany-based intergovernmental agency IPBES. These numbers are frightening, as we move further towards what’s been described as the Sixth Mass Extinction.
But while we all need to understand the severity of the problem, it’s not all doom and gloom. For good work is being done all over the world to tackle it. Take the example of Abu Dhabi itself, which has been at the forefront in the efforts to restore the Arabian Oryx, the Asian Houbara and the Scimitar-horned Oryx. These are conservation success stories both at the local and global levels.
These initiatives go back to the early 1970s when the UAE's Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed, initiated forestry and mangrove plantations and captive breeding programmes for endangered species. Since its establishment in 1996, the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD) has done good work in these fields, thereby furthering the legacy of the late Sheikh Zayed.
Nothing symbolises our restoration efforts better than the Arabian Oryx, a flagship species of our desert landscape that has been brought back from the brink. Our collections, the largest in the world, have helped us in restoring this species not just in the country but elsewhere, too. As part of our regional restoration efforts, we have over the past few years translocated 60 Arabian Oryx to the Wadi Rum National Park and the Shumari Reserve in Jordan.
We have also re-introduced the Scimitar-horned Oryx to Chad – a remarkable feat, considering it had become extinct in the wild nearly two decades ago. With a healthy population of 400 individuals today, the initiative is considered one of the most ambitious and successful large mammal restoration programmes globally. The return of the species to the reserve, almost equal to the size of the UAE, is helping to restore the habitat and rejuvenate the entire ecosystem. It is also leading to the recovery of other species, besides providing employment and engagement opportunities for the local communities – the very essence of the "decade on restoration".
All the aforementioned species, from Arabia to Africa, are beacons of hope and among the finest examples of persistence and perseverance, which are fundamental to any restoration effort.
The recovery our fisheries is another success story, although it will be hard to emulate. We witnessed a dramatic recovery over a two-year period, with more than 57 per cent of fish caught sustainably in 2020, compared to less than 6 per cent in 2018.
There is clearly a determination to build back. Over the past two decades, we have planted more than 12 million mangroves in our marine areas, and seeded over four million seeds and planted more than 17,000 native Samar trees in our terrestrial areas.
We can’t afford to stop, however. And to keep moving, there needs to be a vision. The recently announced Abu Dhabi Mangroves Initiative is an example of such planning. The project will include establishing a nursery, planting half a million mangroves and making the emirate a hub for research and innovation. This is important, as restoration and protection of mangroves and other blue carbon ecosystems, such as seagrasses and saltmarshes, are essential to climate change adaptation efforts.
We are also working in other landscapes of the emirate to recover degraded areas and restore them into functioning ecosystems with species that are resilient to elevated temperatures and periodic droughts. We are doing this by using advanced plant genomics to develop new varieties of more tolerant species.
Restoration efforts must be directed and planned to protect our biodiversity, ensure ecological connectivity and ecosystem functioning. Restoring degraded areas and scaling them will also bring food security and societal benefits. We will not only identify critical ecosystems for restoration but will also invest resources to make it happen. Recovery, in our view, must rest on three prongs: ecology, economy and society.
I am confident that over the next decade, we will have restored our mangroves to acceptable levels, improved sustainable exploitation of fisheries by 70-80 per cent and restored our degraded coral reefs. The biggest challenge, however, will be to sustain ongoing initiatives and launch new ones. Ecosystem restoration is a slow process and could take longer than the nine years we have remaining for the ongoing initiatives to come to fruition.
The decade on restoration initiative has identified a 10-point plan, three of which are critical in my view.
First is long-term financing, without which such projects cannot endure. Developing models and scaling them will be key for initiatives around the globe to succeed. According to a UN assessment report, investment in nature needs to go from the current figure of $130 billion to about $330bn. Restoration efforts in Abu Dhabi will also need long-term financial support. We will ensure financing through public-private partnerships to attract investment besides tapping on individual philanthropy. One such example is the recently launched Etihad Airways Mangroves Programme in partnership with EAD, Jubail Island and the Storey Group.
Next, resources need to be allocated towards research innovation. Scientific knowledge and understanding should underpin these projects, considering they involve huge financial and human resources, besides leadership commitments.
Finally, it is important to share and celebrate restoration efforts. We need to tell successful stories in a compelling way and appreciate the driving forces behind them. We will take our Scimitar-horned Oryx and fisheries examples to the world. For we believe these stories need to be told. This is crucial to ensure that global leadership elsewhere understands this as well. The best way to do this is by using demonstration projects to show the benefits and return on investments, both for nature and for people.
We also need to listen to and learn from other successful practices around the globe.
Restoring ecosystems is a global biodiversity and climate change imperative that needs to be implemented with greater urgency than ever before. And I am truly honoured to be on the advisory board of this global effort. It is a both huge responsibility and a wonderful opportunity. Indeed, this is our chance to work together to halt and heal, and to protect and prosper – for our planet and for our species.