We seem to have finally arrived in that space in policy making where we are pausing to recalibrate our planning processes, from sectoral planning (where sectors are considered separately) to more integrated ways of policy design and implementation. This way of working is gaining more traction, with researchers and practitioners alike calling for a systems approach to planning.
The health and environment sectors are a case in point. Human health and biodiversity (the variety of life on Earth) are inextricably linked, with increasing evidence documenting the negative effect of loss of biodiversity on health, and the impact of anthropogenic (human-originating) changes on both . For example, more than 60% of biopharmaceuticals used globally against diseases are based on natural compounds. Air and water pollution due to poor emissions control and inadequate sanitation affect both the environment and human and animal health. Issues such as antibiotic resistance and unsafe food due to pesticide and toxic chemical residues are related to environmental degradation and unsustainable farming practices, demographic changes, and increased and irrational use of medicines.
Yet for decades, apart from policies focusing on water, sanitation and hygiene, few interventions have bridged the divide between the health and environment sectors. With increasing urbanisation further threatening biodiversity in low and middle income countries, integrated implementation plans that take into consideration the strong interrelation between health and the environment are key to maximising both efficiency and impact. To enable this, we can draw inspiration from longstanding practices amongst indigenous communities and those in rural areas, where the sectors remain strongly interconnected.
There are quite a few illustrative examples that show the feasibility of an integrated planning approach: Singapore’s environment ministry has a policy to establish parks in almost every neighbourhood to enable exercise and facilitate social and mental wellbeing; India’s environment ministry along with multilateral agencies and civil society organizations has for long invested in the conservation of medicinal plants to ensure their availability and accessibility to user groups in both traditional medicine and modern drug and botanicals; the World Health Organization (WHO) has come up with several global guidelines to link environment, health and human rights goals; and the Convention on Biological Diversity and the WHO together have a Joint Work Programme to ensure healthy lives in a bio-culturally diverse environment.
That healthy environments translate to healthy lives is not a new concept; indeed, it has been practiced among indigenous and local communities for centuries. What is required is a building of bridges between sectoral departments to leverage on the synergies that exist between the two, in joint planning and implementation. Such work will contribute to improving both biodiversity and human health.
 Ostfeld, Richard S. Biodiversity loss and the ecology of infectious disease. The Lancet Planetary Health, Volume 1, Issue 1, e2 – e3.