Nature underpins every aspect of economic and human well-being.
When nature is thriving, communities have access to food, clean water, energy, and medicine. It also means industries have a sustainable supply of resources.
When nature is degraded, its services are costly to replace and communities have to struggle for access.
When measuring our region’s prosperity, it is important to look beyond gross national product – our annual value of goods and services.
There is the need to measure how nature sustains us and include stocks of capital assets, including produced, human, and natural capital. Ultimately, conserving nature can provide more economic value than extracting it.
A recent study ‘Protecting East Africa’s Natural Capital: The Cost of Inaction,’ produced by Environmental Incentives, Anchor Environmental, and the East African Community (EAC) and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), estimated the economic value of natural capital in four of East Africa’s most iconic transboundary landscapes.
The study found that natural capital in these landscapes provides US $10.9 billion in value annually, serves 33 million people in surrounding communities, and provides benefits to the region and the globe.
Healthy ecosystems – the soil, air, water, plants, and wildlife – perform an array of services that benefit humans.
They ensure a steady flow of water, filter harmful pollutants, prevent soil erosion, pollinate crops, and improve resilience to climate change and disease. Ecosystems across our region drive tourism and provide intrinsic value to the millions of people who enjoy adventure or have spiritual connection with nature.
The study also assessed the top threats to four priority transboundary landscapes in the region and projected potential loss in ecosystem services through 2050 – if we stay on our current trajectory.
In these landscapes, and in East Africa as a whole, we are losing natural capital at an alarming rate due to land use changes and over extraction of resources. We need to act now and act together across nations to stop and reverse the negative effects that are already affecting communities, businesses, and countries.
Nature’s Value Goes Well beyond Tourism
East Africa’s iconic wildlife and stunning landscapes draw tourists and earn the region significant income.
However, the study found that the US $1.2 billion earned from nature-based tourism in 2018 accounted for only 11 percent of the four landscapes’ total economic value.
The landscapes provided substantial services in the form of productive regulation. This included ensuring water availability for millions of people, reducing pollution in rivers and lakes, and preventing soil erosion that would otherwise threaten development and livelihood.
Economic benefits of these regulations were valued at an estimated US $6.69 billion which is equivalent to approximately 72 percent of the total economic value of these four precious landscapes.
Failing to Protect Our Natural Capital Will Be Costly
The study projected an increase in costs to the regional economies in addition to the decrease in nature-based services if we fail to halt wildlife and habitat degradation.
For example, the Great East African Plains, comprising several key protected areas along the Kenya-Tanzania transboundary, will lose US $161 million in tourism revenue per year by 2050.
Again it will also require an additional US $352 million annually to replace water shortages that support communities and businesses in the Pangani and Mara River Basins.
The biggest cost will likely be addressing the increasingly high toll climate change is taking on our communities and economy.
Currently, forests, other vegetation, and soils in these landscapes capture and store 7.5 billion tons of carbon.
If these systems are lost, large amounts of carbon will be released back into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change.
This will result in extreme temperatures, drought, and flooding and exact an estimated US $1.1 billion per year in remediation costs at the regional level.
The projected impact on human well-being is even more concerning. Significant socio-economic losses across multiple industries, including agriculture, livestock, tourism, charcoal production, floriculture, hydropower generation, and freshwater fishing are likely if we fail to protect natural systems.
For example, a decreased ability to regulate water, sanitation, and hygiene in the Lakes Edward and Albert basins will impact quality of life for approximately 12 million people.
We can expect a rise across the region in zoonotic diseases, which are diseases transferred to humans from animals. In addition, an increase in conflicts between communities and their neighbors – both other humans and wildlife as they compete for limited resources.
Transboundary Collaboration is Key
Nature does not adhere to political or economic boundaries. Across countries and sectors, we share a mutual dependence on the health of our transboundary forests, wetlands, savannas, and plains.
That is why we must work together to protect what we have and restore what is degraded in order to build sustainable communities and businesses. Our action must connect people, nature, and business by exploring the many ways that nature underpins our collective economic health and well-being