Humankind fully depends on the earth’s ecosystems and the services they provide, such as food, water, disease management, climate regulation, spiritual fulfilment and aesthetic enjoyment. Over the past 50 years, humans have changed these ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than ever before, so that growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fibre and fuel can be met. Pollution through the discharge of municipal and industrial wastewater and solid waste (e.g. plastics) exacerbates the related problems. Ecosystem health is inherently linked to water management, sanitation and agriculture as these aspects influence water availability and quality Therefore, sustainable sanitation and water management is crucial for a more sustainable ecosystem management in the future.
An ecosystem is a dynamic complex of living organisms (such as plant, animal and microorganism communities) and the non-living environment (such as air, water and mineral soil) interacting as a functional unit (MA 2005). Humans are an integral part of ecosystems.
Within an ecosystem, the living organisms are interacting with the non-living environment through the nutrient cycle, the water cycle, and energy flows (ODUM 1971). These interactions are strong among the components within a defined ecosystem and weak across its boundaries. An example of an interaction is the pollination of plants by a bee. The pollination is required so that the plant can reproduce and, in case of agricultural plants, develop fruits. Another example is the provision of habitat: rivers are a habitat for fish. Groundwater stored in the soil can also be used by plants (see also water sources and optimisation of water use in agriculture) or be exploited for different human uses (see also groundwater sources and water use). Humans, as part of the ecosystem, are more than any other living organism depending entirely on functioning ecosystem services. However, human activity has a major impact on the health of ecosystem and functioning ecosystem services (see also water pollution, soil degradation and availability and allocation of water).
Mankind is fundamentally dependent on the flow of ecosystem services (MA 2005). The impacts of human activities on ecosystems have increased rapidly in the last few decades due to growing demand for these services. While the majority thereof can be considered beneficial to human well-being today (for example the overexploitation of water for agricultural purposes), there is growing evidence of adverse effects (the lowering of groundwater levels and the resulting difficulty to secure water for crops in the future).Humans have especially enhanced production of three ecosystem services: crops, livestock and aquaculture (see also aquaculture for plants or animals) through expansion of the area devoted to their production, and through technological inputs. This has resulted in an unfavourable change in other services such as water regulation (ALCAMO et al. 2003). For instance, the expansion of agricultural production requires an increasing amount of water for irrigation. Approximately 60% of the ecosystem services evaluated in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment are being degraded or used unsustainably (MA 2005).
Ecosystems are essential for human well-being through the provision of their above mentioned services. Harmful effects of ecosystem changes on human well-being can be direct or indirect. Direct effects occur through locally identifiable biological or ecological pathways. For example, building dams can increase mosquito-breeding and thus the transmission of malaria. Indirect effects have more complex causes through social, economic and political routes. These effects are not always as immediate as the direct effects; they may even take decades to unfold.
The harmful effects of ecosystem change do not evenly impact human populations. Usually, poorly resourced populations suffer the most. Especially poor rural populations rely disproportionally on the integrity and functions of local ecosystems and are likely to lack the means to import ecosystem services.
How well-being is expressed and experienced is strongly dependent on the context and the situation reflecting geography, ecology, age, gender and culture. Yet, some components of well-being are widely spread:
Shortages of ecosystem services effect human well-being as follows:
Some ecosystem services can be partially substituted by using physical capital. For example, limited amount of clean water can be obtained by using water filters. Yet, substitution possibilities depend critically on the economic status. Local needs are also often overridden by outsiders’ demands.
Ecosystem change and human well-being has both present and future dimensions. While an overexploitation of ecosystems may temporarily increase material well-being and alleviate poverty this could prove unsustainable in the long-run. In order to solve today’s pressing problems, human populations are often tempted to deplete tomorrow’s ecological resource base, which can endanger future well-being or even survival.
Drivers affect ecosystem services and human well-being at different spatial and temporal scales: climate change may operate on a global or large regional spatial scale, political change at national or municipal scale. Sociocultural change typically occurs more slowly, while economic change is faster.
There are both direct as well as indirect drivers to ecosystem change. While direct drivers influence ecosystem services directly, indirect drivers alter one or more direct driver.
Five indirect driversof ecosystem change and their services exist:
Habitat change, overexploitation, invasive species, pollution and climate change are the most important direct drivers of change in ecosystems. For each ecosystem, other direct drivers may play an important role:
As the human population grows, more people rely on wetland services, especially freshwater supply (provisioning service) and the processes that enable freshwater supply, especially natural water purification and aquifer recharge. Yet, the usage of wetland services is often unsustainable. The growth in human population increases particularly the demand for agriculture, industry and households (see also the water cycle or water use). Agriculture requires water for irrigation and increased fertiliser and pesticides usage what in turn leads to regional water scarcity and eutrophication of water bodies stressing the ecosystem services.
Summing up, while humans depend on ecosystems and the services they provide, many of these services are used in an unsustainable way. This has and will have harmful consequences for human well-being. Those that live in poor rural areas are often the first being affected by the lack of these services and its consequences. They are also the least able to acquire substitutes for ecosystem services. It is a major challenge to reverse degradation of ecosystems while meeting increasing demand for their services, but it is a challenge that can be met. Changes in policies, institutions and practices can mitigate some of the negative consequences of pressure on ecosystems, although the changes are large and currently not on the way.
MA (Editor) (2005): Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Wetlands and Water. Synthesis. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute and Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA). URL [Accessed: 03.04.2013].
ALCAMO (2003): Ecosystems and Human Well-being. A Framework for Assessment. Washington, DC: Island Press. URL [Accessed: 03.04.2013].
BOELEE, E. (Editor) (2011): Ecosystems for Water and Food Security. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); Colombo: International Water Management Institute (IWMI). URL [Accessed: 07.05.2013]. PDF
The purpose of this document is to show how sustainable ecosystems, explicitly including agro-ecosystems, are essential for water management and food production. This document provides background evidence illustrating the three-way interdependence between ecosystems, water and food security, demonstrating how ecosystem management can be improved to ensure water availability and to avoid future food crises.
CORCORAN, E. (Editor); NELLEMANN, C. (Editor); BAKER, E. (Editor); BOS, R. (Editor); OSBORN, D. (Editor); SAVELLI, H. (Editor) (2010): Sick Water? The central role of wastewater management in sustainable development. A Rapid Response Assessment. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), UN-HABITAT, GRID-Arendal. URL [Accessed: 05.05.2010]. PDF
This book not only identifies the threats to human and ecological health that water pollution has and highlights the consequences of inaction, but also presents opportunities, where appropriate policy and management responses over the short and longer term can trigger employment, support livelihoods, boost public and ecosystem health and contribute to more intelligent water management.
DAVISON, A.; HOWARD, G.; STEVENS, M.; CALLAN, P.; FEWTRELL, L.; DEERE, D.; BARTRAM, J. (2005): Water Safety Plans: Managing Drinking-Water Quality from Catchment to Consumer. Geneva: World Health Organization. URL [Accessed: 23.07.2010]. PDF
This document describes the Water Safety Plan approach with relevant case studies.
This publication gives a short and comprehensive summary of the United Nation’s Millennium Ecoystem Assessment. It treats the questions: How have ecosystems and their services and uses changed? How does ecosystem change affect human well-being and poverty alleviation? What are the critical factors that cause ecosystem change? What are future scenarios of ecosystem change?
HORWITZ, P.; FINLAYSON, M.; WEINSTEIN, P. (2012): Healthy Wetlands, Healthy People: A Review of Wetlands and Human Health Interactions. Ramsar Technical Report No. 6. Gland and Geneva: Secretariat of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and The World Health Organization (WHO). URL [Accessed: 05.03.2012]. PDF
Despite the production of more food and extraction of more water globally, wetlands continue to decline and public health and living standards for many do not improve. Why is this – and what needs to change to improve the situation? If we manage wetlands better, can we improve the health and well-being of people? Indeed, why is this important? This report seeks to address these questions.
KREMEN, C. (2005): Managing Ecosystem Services. What Do We Need to Know About Their Ecology? . In: Ecology Letters 8, 468-479. URL [Accessed: 07.05.2013]. PDF
This paper 1) identifies the important ecosystem service providers, 2) determines various aspects of community structure that influence function in real landscapes, 3) assesses key environmental factors influencing provision of ecosystem services and 4) measures the spatio-temporal scale over which providers and services operate.
ODUM, E.P. (1971): Fundamentals of Ecology. Philadelphia: Saunders.
UNEP (Editor) (2009): Water Security and Ecosystem Services. The Critical Connection. Nairobi: United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). URL [Accessed: 07.05.2013]. PDF
This publication treats the issue of freshwater provision and the human impacts on it as well as suggesting an ecosystem approach to water resources management. Lessons learnt from various case studies from a variety of both developed and developing countries are incorporated in this publication and response options on water security for sustainable ecosystem services are suggested.
In this document, case studies from a variety of both developed and developing countries are described and subdivided into the following ecosystem management categories: Habitat rehabilitation, pollution control, environmental flows, enhancing stakeholder involvement, and integrated watershed management.
UNESCO; UNESCO (Editor) (2014): The United Nations World Water Development Report 2014. Water and Energy. (= The United Nations World Water Development Report, 1). Paris: UNESCO . URL [Accessed: 23.11.2015]. PDF
Water and energy have crucial impacts on poverty alleviation both directly, as a number of the Millennium Development Goals depend on major improvements in access to water, sanitation, power and energy sources, and indirectly, as water and energy can be binding constraints on economic growth – the ultimate hope for widespread poverty reduction.The Report provides a comprehensive overview of major and emerging trends on water use and energy generation from around the world.
http://www.iucn.org/ [Accessed: 29.05.2013]
This is the homepage of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) ecosystem services thematic group. It provides publications on ecosystem services and explains objectives and planned actions of this group.
http://wwf.panda.org/ [Accessed: 29.05.2013]
This is the homepage of the WWF freshwater group. It provides a definition of ecosystem services and the role of freshwater in reaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
http://en.wikipedia.org/ [Accessed: 06.05.2013]
Wikipedia article containing a description and the environmental impacts of pollination.
https://en.wikipedia.org/ [Accessed: 06.05.2013]
Wikipedia article describing the process of photosynthesis.
http://en.wikipedia.org/ [Accessed: 06.05.2013]
This Wikipedia article is about irrigation in agriculture.
http://www.freedrinkingwater.com/ [Accessed: 06.05.2013]
Website describing the natural purification of water.