Earth's Health in Sharp Decline, Massive Study Finds

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The negative effects of ecosystem strain also include collapsing fisheries, coastal "dead zones" near sediment-heavy river mouths, shifting water quality, and unpredictable regional climate, the report said.

Deforestation and other radical ecosystem alterations also promote diseases, such as malaria and cholera, as well as new strains of existing contagions.

Changes to water systems may increase the frequency and severity of destructive floods. Over a hundred thousand people were killed in the 1990s by floods, which also caused destruction to the tune of 243 billion dollars (U.S.), according to the report.

The regions facing the greatest environmental degradation are also among the world's poorest: sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, and parts of Latin America, and South and Southeast Asia

Call for Radical Change

The report urges drastic policy changes to the ways in which natural resources are used.

From an economic perspective, the study suggests that many intact ecosystems should be regarded as more valuable than those altered for commercial use.

For example, citing wetland wildlife habitat, water pollution filtration, water storage, and recreational value, the report appraised intact Thai mangroves at a thousand U.S. dollars per acre (0.4 hectare). The same mangroves were valued at only U.S. $200 an acre after they had been cleared for fish and shellfish farming.

"The overriding conclusion of this assessment is that it lies within the power of human societies to ease the strains we are putting on the nature services of the planet, while continuing to use them to bring better living standards to all," the report's 45-person board of directors said in a statement.

"Achieving this, however, will require radical changes in the way nature is treated at every level of decision-making and new ways of cooperation between government, business and civil society," the statement continued. "The warning signs are there for all of us to see. The future now lies in our hands."

The board of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report was co-chaired by Robert Watson, chief scientist of the World Bank, and A. Hamid Zakri, director of the United Nations University-Institute of Advanced Studies.

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