World Environment Day, 5 June 2021 with a special focus on addressing environmental degradation through Ecosystem Restoration

Posted on June 03, 2021

World Environment Day is celebrated on 5th June. The Department offers undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications focusing on geography, as well as environmental studies, with our Centre for Environmental Studies (CFES) offering course-based Masters, as well as research-based Masters and Doctoral studies.

World Environment Day aims to raise awareness of our natural environment, and today drawing attention to ecosystem restoration, amid the Covid-19 pandemic. This celebration is in response to the launch of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030), aimed at “a global rallying cry to heal our planet”, by “Preventing, Halting and reversing the Degradation of Ecosystem Worldwide”. As the World Environment Day focuses on the “Ecosystem Restoration” theme, South Africa will also be celebrating 25 years of cooperation between the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) and the United Nations Convention on Combating Desertification (UNCCD), under a theme “Financing the future of Nature, Climate and the Environment”.

Environmental problems such as pollution, invasive species, climate change, overexploitation of natural resources (including poaching) and land-use change are identified as some of the main causes of biodiversity loss at local, regional and global scales. This was evident on the latest assessment reports by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)’s Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 (GBO5) and the WWF’s Living Planet. In addition, the SANBI’s National Biodiversity Assessment report showed that most of our ecosystems are threatened. This is a call for interdisciplinary interventions looking at all possible causes and drivers of biodiversity loss and develop mitigation strategies and restoration mechanisms. The establishment of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and Aichi biodiversity targets and the current post-2020 negotiation of the CBD are some of the mechanisms towards reducing and reversing environmental degradation.

An interdisciplinary approach is required when attempting to provide solutions for reducing, halting and reversing environmental degradation, including ecosystem restoration. These include researchers in various field of studies such as ecology, social and economic studies, geography, meteorology, data science, environmental studies, geoinformation and earth observation science. In addition, commitments and concerted efforts from governments, donors, public and private financial institutions, involvement of local communities as well as the youth, will mark the success of reversing environmental degradation. The role of research is critical in developing monitoring, assessments and evaluations frameworks as some of the key activities required when addressing these environmental issues. As Peter Drucker said, “You cannot manage what you do not measure”. CFES, as inspired by the University of Pretoria’s vision of a “research-intensive institution”, is positioned with its internal and external collaborators to contribute by bringing an interdisciplinary approach for addressing these problems. Not only does the Centre focus on environmental issues but on the socio-economic and ecological systems towards achieving national priorities and sustainable development.

As we are in the era of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), the use of “Big Data” and artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning are gaining momentum as indicated in the Department of Science and Innovation’s White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation. The main question is, what is the contribution of earth observation and geospatial science to 4IR, and what environmental issues can be addressed using these tools? Earth observation data and geospatial tools are one of the key enablers for big data and AI in assessing and monitoring the environment and natural resources. By linking in situ and remotely sensed data, we can generate information to assist in addressing environmental issues and also track progress on ecosystem restoration activities. Remote sensing can assess and monitor the concentrations of pollution and the extent/rate of deforestation at multiple scales. Pollution is not a new phenomenon, yet it remains the world’s greatest problem facing humanity and the leading environmental causes of morbidity and mortality. The loss of forests (deforestation) can be tracked using remote sensing data and tools through measuring and mapping of land cover change focusing on forest extent gains and losses. Deforestation does not only contribute to biodiversity loss but has negative implications on carbon sequestration, freshwater provision and flood control. With overexploitation of natural resources, 4IR can contribute immensely to address poaching using earth observation data at multiple scales. Even though the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) reported a national 33% decline in rhino poaching in 2020, for example, but we still need to innovate and further eradicate this problem. Use of in situ including the current location of cases, drones, aircraft and satellite observations are critical for risk analysis highlighting areas susceptible to poaching, and for near real-time monitoring. We are in the data-intensive era, and we should join hands in an interdisciplinary way to address highlighted environmental problems, and strive to restore our ecosystems.


Happy World Environment Day!


Lake Vicoria Lake Victoria Lake Victoria
Schoemanskloof Kruger National Park Sodwana


Contributed by Professor Abel Ramoelo, the Director of the Centre for Environmental Studies (CFES)

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- Author Department of Geography, Geoinformatics and Meteorology
Published by Christel Hansen

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