Study: Global urban footprint will triple by 2030

If you think cities are big and numerous now, just wait another 15 years.

Our new normal?  (photo by William Laurance)

Our new normal? (photo by William Laurance)

By 2030, some 5 billion people will be living in cities -- many of them mega-cities that each sustain over 10 million residents.  And the total area affected globally by urban sprawl will triple, compared to that in the year 2000.

Those are just a few of the alarming predictions of a recent study by Karen Seto and colleagues, published in the leading journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Seto and her team also estimate that, by 2030, an additional 120 million hectares of land will be engulfed by cities -- an area the size of South Africa. 

Notably, some of the most dramatic urban expansion will occur in certain biodiversity hotspots -- regions with high biodiversity and large concentrations of locally endemic species that have already suffered severe habitat loss.

In fact, the most explosive urban expansion will occur in hotspots that have been relatively undisturbed so far by urban development.  These include the Eastern Afromontane hotspot, the Guinean Forests of West Africa hotspot, and the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka hotspot.

In each of these biodiversity hotspots, the expansion in urban lands from 2000 to 2030 is expected to range from 900 to 1900 percent, according to the study.

Such changes reflect the dramatic growth in human populations still occurring in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, as well as increasing urbanization trends globally.

Other places slated for sharp increases in urban area include eastern China, Turkey, the Himalayas, and parts of Mexico.

The world that Seto and colleagues project is not a distant, dystopian future.  This is our near-term tomorrow. 

This will be our reality if we fail to address unbridled population growth in those regions of the Earth most at risk.

As Seto and colleagues show, our new reality will be a planet increasingly dominated by sprawling cities.  Whether those will be polluted, stressful cities or innovative, well-designed cities remains to be seen.

 

Crisis time for India's endangered forests

The Western Ghats—a long mountain chain that supports ancient rainforests and a range of other habitats—is arguably India’s most biologically important real estate.  Here, ALERT member Jean-Philippe Puyravaud weighs in on the ongoing debate about how best to conserve this critical region:

Debate ahead for imperiled forests...

Debate ahead for imperiled forests...

Two ambitious management plans, by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel and the High Level Working Group, were recently proposed for the Western Ghats.  Both attempted to identify Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAs) that merit protection, but generally got a cold reception from stakeholders and the general public.  

A recent article in Mongabay argues that these management schemes represent a way forward, so why haven't they been better received?

Both plans were invited to make conservation choices based on the principle of sustainability.  But the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests, which contracted the studies, failed to define what “sustainability” meant.  Because this basic definition was muddy, there was no clarity about anything else--the development model for the region, or which industries or livelihoods would be favored in a reasonable path to prosperity.

The legal framework for the ESA scheme wasn't clear either.  Whether the ESA overrides existing laws or competes against them at the local level is yet to be seen.  For instance, plans to protect elephant corridors may be diluted by the scheme.

Without any clear economic guidelines, both the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel and High Level Working Group framed their own understanding of how the Western Ghats should be managed economically and legally.  This was probably an overshoot of their mandates.

What this tells me is that society’s reactions to conservation plans may not imply a lack of enthusiasm about conservation.  In the ESA case, widespread confusion on several levels created so much public angst that neither plan had much chance of widespread acceptance.

Heated conservation debate over India's most critical ecosystem

The Western Ghats is India's biologically richest and arguably most imperiled ecosystem--not just a global biodiversity hotspot but considered one of the "hottest of the hotspots".

ALERT members Jean-Philippe Puyravaud and Priya Davidar weigh in on a heated debate about the future of these imperiled forests:

A cool mist shrouds one of the hottest of the hotspots (photo by William Laurance)

A cool mist shrouds one of the hottest of the hotspots (photo by William Laurance)

Glowing reports on how well India’s forests are connected in the Western Ghats come at a time when there is active debate over laws with teeth that could potentially remove human encroachments in highly sensitive areas.  But unfortunately the media seem to be saying “all is well” in a very untimely fashion.

Reality is less rosy and the Western Ghats are replete with conservation proposals that never worked.

The Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve is one of these.  The reserve lies at the center of the largest populations of Asian elephants and Bengal tigers in the world.  Since its inception 30 years ago, it has remained a set of separate reserves—never managed as an integrated whole, as should be the case for Man and Biosphere reserves.  There has been no improvement in the management of biodiversity and endangered wildlife, and the contrast between wild habitats and developed areas has never been so stark. 

The next buzz is a proposal to establish Ecologically Sensitive Areas.  This idea has been bulldozed by its proponents as the scheme that will save the Western Ghats.  However, it is basically an empty blue-print that says that most of the Western Ghats should be preserved—a consensus view ever since the Western Ghats were declared a global biodiversity hotspot.

Intense land-use pressures... working with local communities is vital (photo by William Laurance)

Intense land-use pressures... working with local communities is vital (photo by William Laurance)

In India, concrete, practical solutions are proposed every day without effect.  In 1995, for example, Stephen Sumithran proposed a beautiful plan to reconnect the habitats of the endangered Nilgiri tahr that would have tripled its population in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve.   This plan had no effect on the ground because it was not implemented.

Grandiose schemes in the Western Ghats have only contributed to weakening conservation efforts because they have not been grounded in reality.  Their motto seems to be “think globally, don’t act locally”.

Debate about forest conservation scheme in India

Things are heating up in India.  ALERT member Priya Davidar and her colleague Jean-Philippe Puyravaud provide this perspective on a key conservation issue there.  Their focus is a plan to reconnect fragmented rainforests in the Western Ghats--some of the most biologically important real estate in India.

Prime real estate... rainforests of the Western Ghats (photo by William Laurance)

Prime real estate... rainforests of the Western Ghats (photo by William Laurance)

Davidar and Puyravaud's comments follow:

The BBC article How India is building Asia’s largest secure forest network (20 March 2014) asserts that since 2012, the state of Karnataka has declared nearly 2,600 square kilometers of forests as protected areas, linking a series of national parks in the Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot.  These forests would connect with adjoining forest areas in neighboring states.

We congratulate the Karnataka Forest Department for this initiative, but this information has not been made public in India.  Where there have been initiatives to add forests to the protected-area network, it is not at the scale indicated in the article.  Given the high price of land in India, the suggested plan would cost billions of dollars, far more than the entire budget of India's Ministry of Environment and Forests.

At present, the protected-area “network” in Karnataka is chopped up by highways, pipelines, dams, railroad tracks, and human settlements.  Wild elephants are dying there because they can't access water in the dry season.  Parks and reserves are under enormous pressure from fuelwood harvesting, cattle grazing, pollution, plant invasion, violent fires, poaching, and unmanaged tourism.  In some national parks, the tourism pressure is so high that connectivity within the protected areas themselves is threatened.

Parks under pressure...  fuelwood harvesting in India (photo by William Laurance)

Parks under pressure...  fuelwood harvesting in India (photo by William Laurance)

The BBC article comes at the same time that a proposed high-tension power line would slice through forests in the heart of the “secure forest network”, from Mysore to Kozhikode.  This project would be followed by a four-lane highway and railway line.  Funds have been sanctioned for surveys on these projects without considering alternative routes or proper environmental impact assessments.

The bottom line: Optimism about the proposed Karnataka Corridor needs to be tempered with caution.  These vital forests are far from secure and there are many challenges ahead.