Environmental degradation refers to the reduction of the quality of land, air and water resources resulting from human activities and natural processes.

It also refers to any process that brings about the destruction and depletion of natural resources, causing their complete obliteration or resulting in irreversible or hard to reverse damage.

Over millennia, processes such as flooding, the ice age, tidal waves, storms, soil erosion and others have caused changes to various landscapes, but never on such a wide scale as is being witnessed today as a result of detrimental human activities.

A 2016 report by UNEP, the United Nations’ Environmental body shows that air pollution levels are the highest they have been in over 400,000 years, with atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reaching over 410 parts per million in the last few years.

Desertification, water pollution, depletion of forests, animal and other wildlife extinction and other forms of environmental degradation are on the rise, and these are expected to have severe negative effects on the quality of human life and on the entire planet’s ecosystems as a whole.

Fortunately, it is not too late to reverse or reduce environmental damage and understanding the causes and impacts will go a long way in providing solutions to this scourge on the earth’s resources.

Causes of environmental degradation

There are several causes of environmental degradation and the following factors have been found to be the largest contributors to damaging the environment:

1. Population explosion: A growing global population is putting increasing pressure on natural resources resulting in deforestation, water and air pollution and other detrimental effects on the environment.

2. Technology and industry: While technology has made life for many a lot easier, its waste products in the form of vehicle emissions, factory wastes, landfills and heavy metals that leach into water and air resources are causing irreversible damage to the planet.

3. Deforestation: Cutting down trees to make way for human habitation or for use in human activities such as paper manufacturing, for fuel wood, home construction has led to an increase in air pollution and an extinction of certain forms of wildlife.

4. Modern agriculture: Agricultural practices today employ the use of methods that cause damage to the environment. Clearing off large tracts of land, pesticide use and the overuse of land in an attempt at getting greater yields are all contributing to the degradation of both land and water resources.

Impact of environmental degradation

Due to the fact that the earth’s resources are not finite and as a result of damage that is making it hard for the planet’s systems to renew themselves, the following impacts are beginning to be felt by both humans and the planet as a whole:

· Health problems: Respiratory diseases, cancers and other related illnesses are on the rise due to the high levels of pollution in both air and water resources.

· Global warming: The depletion of the ozone layer due to greenhouse gases has led to a rise in global temperatures, resulting in problems such as erratic weather patterns, rise in sea levels and increased incidences of drought and famines.

· Extinction of wildlife: Environmental degradation, and specifically, deforestation and over logging are resulting in the loss of biodiversity and in some cases causing the extinction of entire species such as the passenger pigeon and the Baiji white dolphin.

How to reverse environmental degradation

Reversing the damage caused to the environment may be a long and arduous task, but it is doable. The following are some of the methods that have been shown to be most effective in tackling this scourge:

1. Raising awareness: Disseminating information about the impact of human activities on the environment is a great way to help reduce damage to natural resources. Letting everyone know that everything they do will have either a positive or negative effect on their surroundings is one of the most effective ways to ensure behaviour change and limit negative effects to the environment by humans.

2. Water conservation: Methods such as rainwater collection, the installation of low flow water fixtures and the installation of gardens instead of lawns near houses helps to conserve water resources and frees them up for use by wild animals and other species in the ecosystem.

3. Clean energy sources: Modern sources of energy such as oil, gas and electricity are major contributors to environmental degradation, emitting greenhouse gases such as carbon and sulphur dioxide into the environment. Reducing their use by incorporating clean alternatives such as solar and wind energy that have little to no impact on the environment is a great way to reduce environmental pollution and protect rapidly dwindling natural resources.

4. Recycling: Hundreds of millions of tonnes of waste products are produced annually around the globe and many of these go into landfills, taking up valuable land that could be used for agriculture and leaching heavy metals into water sources.

Choosing to buy and use products that are easy to recycle is one of the more effective ways to combat environmental degradation.

The effects of environmental degradation are long and far reaching, having serious effects on human health, entire ecosystems and the whole planet as a whole. Arresting the rate at which natural systems are being polluted and destroyed is crucial to human survival.

Fortunately, by taking personal responsibility and lobbying governments and other decision-making bodies to put in place the necessary policies, it is possible to reduce the impact of environmental degradation and prevent the destruction and damage of remaining natural resources.