- The growing appreciation and understanding of benefits that nature provides to human wellbeing has resulted in efforts to integrate the concept into planning, policies, and decision-making as well as growing scientific research around the topic.
- A study from the Hindu Kush Himalayas, by the author of this commentary, revealed an exponential growth in ecosystem services research, consistent with the general trends in ecosystem services research at the global and regional levels.
- The HKH being a contiguous ecosystem shared by the eight-member countries, a long-term regional analysis of the ecosystem services is needed to understand the interdependence and dynamics of ecosystem services in the region
- The views expressed in this commentary are that of the authors.
It is increasingly clear today that the economic prosperity of the world has come at a huge cost to its natural capital. The consequences of unsustainable resource use and environmental degradation are apparent in the increasing frequency of extreme weather events and natural disasters, global warming, and emerging infectious disease, to name a few.
Scientists, conservationists and economists around the world are trying to find solutions to these problems through various environmental management programs. One among such environmental management programs is the concept of ‘ecosystem services.’ Simply put, this concept is about valuing nature in economic and social terms so that we better understand the full implications of the development choices we make. It is now a well-defined and an established field of enquiry and an important part of the global discourse and practice of environmental management.
Ecosystem services are the benefits that nature provides to human wellbeing – food and energy, clean air and water, timber for shelter, fertile soil for agriculture and flood control, among others. These benefits or services not just underpin overall environmental and human health but also sustain the global economy. It is estimated that 40% of the global economy is based on biological products and processes.
The growing appreciation and understanding of benefits that nature provides to human wellbeing have resulted in a continuous effort to integrate the concept into everyday planning, policies, and decision-making processes. This has also resulted in growing scientific research around the topic, which is illustrated by a growing worldwide research base. For instance, a study by McDonough et al. in 2017 reported that 3000 scholarly articles on the topic ‘ecosystem services’ were published in the year 2016. The knowledge generated by such scientific research is critical in finding solutions to the environmental challenges that the world is currently facing, value the services that benefit us, and invest in conservation efforts that sustain the flow of these goods and services.
Ecosystem services perspectives in the Hindu Kush Himalaya
Understanding ecosystem services perspectives in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) is particularly imperative because the HKH represents a unique mountain ecosystem that is the highest in the world and which extends over 3,500 km from east to west and covers an area of 4.3 million sq. km.
Often referred to as the ‘Third Pole’ and the ‘water tower of Asia’, the HKH is a storehouse of biodiversity and ecosystem services, especially water – the lifeline of organisms. The ecosystem services produced in the region support 240 million people living in the hills and mountains and around 1.65 billion people living in the 10 major river basins (e.g. Ganges, Brahmaputra and others) downstream. Further, around three billion people – or little less than half of humanity – benefit from the food produced in these river basins.
However, despite being ecologically and socio-economically significant, the HKH faces multiple challenges, including deforestation and degradation, infestation by invasive species and biodiversity loss, all of which are adversely affecting its fragile environment and people.
In order to protect the rich biodiversity and ecosystem services of the HKH through informed policy-making, the primary step would be to understand the knowledge base of ecosystem services here. A holistic, landscape-level understanding of the state-of-the-art regarding ecosystem services research in the HKH would help in identifying emerging themes and gaps and in providing directions for future ecosystem research and restoration projects in the HKH. It would be useful in providing a strong rationale for mainstreaming the concept of ecosystem services in policy and practice in the region.
Against this backdrop, we explored the status and pattern of the scientific research on ecosystem services in the HKH published over the past 18 years.
The history and extent of ecosystem services research in the HKH
Our study from the HKH revealed an exponential growth in ecosystem services research, consistent with the general trends in ecosystem services research at the global and regional levels. Although at the global level, the concept of ecosystem services appeared in scholarly articles before 1997, whereas in the HKH the term is used only in the 21st century. For instance, the term first appeared in a scholarly article in 2002 when only two articles used the concept of ecosystem services in the HKH. This later rose to not less than 30 articles each year over the period 2014–2020. Until July 2020 (over the span of 18 years) 439 peer-reviewed journal articles were published that have used the concept of ‘ecosystem services.’
In terms of geographic distribution, the research on ecosystem services was found to be unevenly distributed across the HKH. The highest volume of research was observed from China, especially from the provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, and the Tibetan Plateau, followed by Nepal and India. There have been very few contributions from Myanmar and Pakistan, and no country-specific records from Afghanistan, which reflect the limited research priorities and investment in ecosystem services research and discourses in these countries.
This research was found to be published in 166 different scholarly journals indicating that research and findings on ecosystem services research have the potential to reach out to a broad array of varied science communities and ecosystem management readers and practitioners.
The tangible benefits of nature that can be directly measured were mostly researched whereas intangible benefits such as cultural values, spirituality, sense of place, and attachment to nature were less studied. Also, there is a dominance of the biophysical sciences in ecosystem services research, suggesting the need to integrate other disciplines, including social and political science into the research arena.
A vast network of scholars and research from around the world have collaborated to carry out ecosystem services research in the HKH. Altogether 1386 researchers have networked to publish scholarly articles on the topic in the region. It is worth noting that the top publishing authors are from the region (China, Nepal, and India), but affiliated with international organisations, or based in developed countries, indicative of the international influence on ecosystem services research in the HKH.
Research institutions from 56 countries have networked to conduct collaborative research in the HKH, so far. Although China has the highest number of scholarly publications, Nepal was identified as a principal collaborator with the widest country network. It has collaborated extensively with other countries, including Australia, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States for the ecosystem services research in the region, indicating a wider multinational collaboration and avenues for research innovations.
Read more: The Himalayas are staring at a grim water future, says study
A time for cooperation beyond borders and disciplines
Although the ecosystem services research has increased rapidly in the HKH over the past decade, the existing knowledge about the status of ecosystem services in the HKH is still limited and sporadic. As a result, research priorities and investments to manage ecosystem services of the region are skewed towards certain countries and ecosystems.
The existing research focuses on biophysical elements of ecosystem services, with very few studies covering the social and political aspects and the management of ecosystem services. International scholars and institutions were found to be influential, suggesting the likely dominance of their interpretations, and the consequent marginalisation of the local context and issues, including intangibles such as spiritual values prevalent in the region. Therefore, for ecosystem management to be holistic and regional, ecosystem services research has to be multi-disciplinary and geographically representative, with a focus on the local, national, and regional issues and interpretations.
The HKH being a contiguous ecosystem shared by the eight-member countries, a long-term regional analysis of the ecosystem services is needed to understand the interdependence and dynamics of ecosystem services in the region. Moreover, stronger regional cooperation is needed for the integration of the ecosystem services concept into science, policy and practice across all the HKH countries. It will continue to be critically important for all eight HKH countries to take decisive action to enhance ecosystem resilience by halting biodiversity loss and land degradation, and sustainably managing forests, rangelands, and other ecosystems which can be achieved through promoting transboundary cooperation for landscapes and river basins as outlined in the recently endorsed HKH Call To Action.
The authors are researchers from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Kathmandu, Nepal. Presently, Pratikshya Kandel is also a PhD scholar at The University of Western Australia.
This article was updated on January 14, 2020.
Banner image: Band-e Amir National Park is Afghanistan’s first national park, located in the Bamyan Province. It is a series of six deep blue lakes separated by natural dams made of travertine, a mineral deposit. Photo by Alex Treadway/ICIMOD.