Ecosystem services are all the processes and outputs that nature provides us with. These include provisioning services (food, water), regulating services (waste water treatment, pollution control), supporting services (shelter), and cultural services (recreation and tourism).
Our planet is blessed with many types of ecosystems, including terrestrial, marine, freshwater, forest and grassland. An ecosystem is a dynamic community that comprises living organisms, such as microorganisms, plants and animals, as well as non-living environments, each interacting with one another. Each ecosystem and its components (water, living organisms, soil) play a key role in maintaining our wellbeing and health.
Human societies have benefited both directly and indirectly from nature for centuries. From clean air to drinking water; weather and climate control to natural crop pollination, nature provides us with critical services for our wellbeing. As you can see, we cannot survive without these goods, outputs, and processes that natural and managed ecosystems provide for us.
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How are ecosystem services defined?
Over the years, we have defined ecosystem services in many ways. For instance, Costanza defined ecosystem services in 1997 as the processes and outputs provided to us during the transformation of natural resources. Similarly, in 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) report defined ecosystem services as ‘the benefits people get from ecosystems.’ More recently, we have defined them as the contributions of ecosystem structure and function, along with a combination of other inputs, to human well-being.
What are the unique services ecosystems provide?
Overall, there are four major types of ecosystem services: provisioning, regulating, supporting and cultural.
Our environment provides us with raw materials, food, shelter, energy and other resources that are essential for our physical wellbeing and various economic activities. Together, these materialistic resources are known as provisioning services. Some examples of provisioning services are water, food, raw materials and medicinal resources.
Water: Freshwater ecosystems play a huge role in regulating and purifying water. Similarly, forests and vegetation help improve the quality of water by acting as filters.
Food: Ecosystems provide us with the right conditions and environments to grow vegetables, fruit, pulses, rice and other important food types. On the other hand, humans also rely on freshwater and marine resources, as well as wild animals living in forested ecosystems for meat.
Raw materials: We all need raw materials for construction, whether it is for our homes or offices. Ecosystems provide us with valuable resources, such as timber (from forests) and biofuels from plants, which are the primary materials used in construction activities.
Medicinal resources: Nature provides many resources, including plants and animals that we humans use as traditional medicines. For instance, if you have an upset stomach, you might immediately reach out for ginger from the fridge. When we feel the flu coming on, we immediately start making chicken soup! Such resources are all sourced from plants and animals are not only used in common households, but are also sourced by pharmaceutical companies as raw material for medicine.
These are the many services that nature provides while acting as regulators. For instance, many natural resources, e.g., air, water, soil, flood and disease, require some regulation to ensure their quality, all of which are enabled by ecosystems.
Treatment of wastewater: Wetlands are classic examples of ecosystems that provide vital filtering services of animal and human waste, which purifies water.
Air quality and carbon sequestration: Trees and forests play a critical role in our lives. They provide shade, promote rainfall, influence the availability of water and help regulate air pollution. Forested ecosystems play a huge role in regulating climate and weather by storing carbon and other greenhouse gases. As trees grow older, they remove more carbon from the atmosphere, which helps keep our planet cool.
Prevent or moderate extreme events: Many ecosystems can regulate natural disasters, such as floods and storms, by acting as barriers. The most classic example is that of mangrove ecosystems, which help reduce the impact of tsunamis.
Pollination: Pollination is perhaps one of the most critical services that biodiversity provides. Two of nature’s key pollinators are insects (particularly bees) and wind; without these two pollinators, growing agricultural crops would be immensely challenging for us as humans. In fact, researchers have found that pollinators improve crop yields by approximately 75% worldwide!
These are services that ecosystems provide besides those outlined above. For instance, ecosystems provide shelter and habitats for countless plant and animal species while also maintaining their diversity. Nature also provides them with food and water, which are vital for their survival. Ecosystems help maintain genetic diversity on our planet, which is why we have such a broad and spectacular variety of life forms on Earth.
Our planet’s ecosystems provide us with many non-materialistic goods and services. For instance, nature provides us with green spaces that we use for walking and picnics, as well as land and seascapes that allow for tourism-related activities. Several communities across the world even consider forests sacred and, in many countries, they worship certain tree species.
As you can see, ecosystems provide humans and other life forms with several services that are necessary for survival. However, these critical services are under threat, as human populations have been proliferating over the past few centuries. The mindless abuse and overconsumption of nature’s resources have contributed to the rapid extinction of thousands of species, in addition to causing widespread deforestation, leading to climate change and air, water and soil pollution.
Unfortunately, it is hard to quantify or place a price tag on these services. However, in the past, researchers have been able to quantify how many humans depend on these provisioning services. For instance, a study revealed that forest provisioning ecosystem services accounted for 44% of the average household income of families in Zambia. So, as you can see, these services are immensely valuable, which is why we must ensure that we protect them at all costs. After all, humanity relies on these services to survive and thrive!