Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Resilient Ecosystems- a comment on the economic crisis

I flew into Mumbai, India last year on December 21, the same day the modern wing of the Taj Mahal Hotel was re-opened after being damaged during the Mumbai terror attacks. Yes, the heritage wing of the hotel which had almost been gutted was still closed but the official re-opening in the presence of a packed crowd of India’s glitterati proved to many the resilience of the people of Mumbai.

Resilience is a word that is bandied around nowadays. Much of what we know about resilience as a science comes from a relatively new discipline in ecology which has generated many papers and books. To some, especially those working on issues to do with small island developing states (SIDS), resilience is the other face of vulnerability. Many vulnerable human and natural ecosystems display resilience, or not, when hit by shocks.

In simplistic terms a resilient ecosystem, be it human or natural, is one that can withstand shocks and rebuild itself when necessary. Just as the people of Mumbai seemingly bounced back after the horrific attacks, so it is that resilient ecosystems have the ability to absorb blows and come back to some state of “normality” without much delay. But, it’s never that simple. The state that emerges after shocks may be somewhat different. The raucous, easy, free-wheeling democracy that was previously evident in Mumbai has now given way to a police regulated city with heavy security installed at hotels, cinemas and historical sites and police check points set up everywhere.

Inevitably, we see resilience now being used in the context of the global economic crisis. Pundits, journalists and pop-economists are debating which country will be more resilient in managing the crisis. For us in Seychelles we have a double whammy to cope with; the national debt servicing plus the economic woes of the developed world which provides us with tourists, investment and development assistance.

I believe Seychelles as a nation displays many aspects of resilience necessary to rebuild its system. But not all parts of the system will end up the same as before, meaning not all parts of society will be able to withstand the blows as well. There are similar situations in natural ecosystem. Studies of impacts of cyclones and hurricanes show that water quality and phytoplankton productivity in the sea for example– a measure of the health of the food web – are impacted by winds and heavy rainfall, but return to normal within months. Not all components of the marine system are equally resilient. After hurricanes, many coral reefs suffer massive damage and the ecosystem can shift to a different regime, one that may not be as productive or diverse.

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