Nature's solutions for a safer tomorrow

13 May 2011 | Article
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This week’s Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction saw the launch of a major report into how the world can better manage nature to minimize the risks of natural disasters. The findings make a compelling case for action says IUCN Director General Julia Marton-Lefèvre.

Disaster risk management remains top of the agenda of governments in all parts of our planet and, sadly, not always for good reasons. 2011 is already a record-breaking year when it comes to disasters. The 11 March earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan is expected to cost the insurance industry between US$ 21 and US$ 34 billion, making it the costliest disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

This shows the catastrophic impact that the sheer force of nature can have on communities, no matter how prepared a country is.

Escalating costs

The Global Assessment Report, to which IUCN contributed, is therefore a timely and much-needed contribution to our collective quest for successful strategies to address risk. It explores why the positive trend of global decline in mortality risk for weather-related hazards is matched by a continuing rise in the cost of disaster-related economic loss and damage.

The report also notes that while many governments report successes in strengthening their capacities to prepare for and respond to disasters, many countries have yet to find a clear political and economic path to investing today for a safer tomorrow.

The findings make a compelling case for action in four areas: addressing global risk drivers; taking responsibility for risks; developing existing development instruments; and strengthening risk governance.

Particularly compelling is the report’s finding that declining ecosystems are one of the main drivers that increase global risk to disasters. It identifies drought as the hidden risk, noting that it is still poorly understood.

Drought risk is often contingent on how well the natural resources and environment are being managed, which includes such issues as secure rights to those resources and acknowledging the differences in how men and women in drought-prone areas use natural resources. IUCN has been working with the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction to mainstream gender in national policies for disaster risk reduction.

Natural buffers

More generally, ecosystems in decline are increasing the vulnerability of people to disasters, how they prepare for them and how well they recover afterwards. Mangroves and coral reefs serve as buffers for floods and tsunamis, forests help prevent landslides, wetlands act as sponges that can absorb water in times of flooding and release it in times of drought.

When these ecosystems are in trouble, the risks to us, humans, are magnified.

That’s why IUCN is working with 12 other UN, NGO, research and government entities, through the Partnership for Environment and Disaster Risk Reduction, to raise awareness on the critical functions of the environment before, during and after a disaster.

The partnership is working from global to local levels in collating best practices, advocating for sound policies and national strategies and establishing a strong scientific knowledge base in enhancing this work.

One such example is the Mangroves for the Future initiative, launched by IUCN and partners in the wake of the devastating 2004 Western Indian Ocean tsunami. The initiative has helped restore and preserve mangroves in eight countries across Asia, and is now being extended to East Africa and Oceania.

Compelling examples

In Shinyanga, Tanzania, over 500,000 hectares of forest was restored in an area previously called ‘the Desert of Tanzania’, today benefiting more than 2 million people, including by offering better protection against drought.

Healthy coral reefs in the Caribbean provide US$ 700 million to US$ 2.2 billion of coastal protection from erosion and storm surges to 18,000km2 of beaches.

The forests of Andermatt in Switzerland, provide US$ 2.5 million of avalanche protection each year.

Such natural buffers are often less expensive to install or manage, and often more effective than physical engineering structures, such as dykes, levees, or concrete walls.

The limited effectiveness of some physical engineering approaches was dramatically demonstrated by disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 with the failure of the dyke system established to protect New Orleans.

As a result, dams are now being torn down and wetlands are being restored along the Mississippi basin to provide an ecosystem-based approach to disaster risk reduction. Across the US, coastal wetlands are providing billions of dollars worth of services in terms of storm protection.

Adapting to climate change

Many disasters, such as floods, droughts, and storms, involve water, and climate change intensifies the threat from these hazards. In response to this dual challenge, IUCN supports climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction in the Pangani basin in Tanzania and the Tacaná/Cahoacan watersheds in Guatemala and Mexico.

Sound watershed management is also a top priority for some of the world’s largest and most populous cities from Beijing and Manila, to Rio de Janeiro and Bogotá, and indeed New York.

Another important aspect of disaster risk management is ‘building back better’. All too often, environmental concerns are sacrificed in the process of rapid reconstruction following natural disasters.

That’s why IUCN calls on governments to commit to sound environmental management and whenever possible, natural infrastructure, as a preferred and more economic option to deal with disasters.

Seize the moment

Those involved in post-disaster reconstruction have that window of opportunity to change how a disaster-hit area will be rebuilt and developed in the future. We must seize this opportunity to bring about the kind of recovery that would improve both people’s livelihoods and security, and the health of the ecosystems on which many rely.

The environment needs to be a central concern in all stages of post-disaster response. Initially, of course, the rescue phase must focus on the immediate needs of people affected by the event. However, in the rescue and relief phases, actions taken to alleviate human suffering can also have unforeseen negative effects on the environment.

For example, providing fuel wood instead of kerosene or natural gas can lead to deforestation in the surrounding region, increasing the threat of subsequent landslides, unless fuelwood harvesting is well managed.

Decisions taken for short-term measures such as temporary resettlement can have long-lasting consequences, for example if disaster refugees are sheltered in or close to a national park. Longer-term recovery will require concerted action for both people and their environment.

How we value and protect our natural environment can make all the difference between a minor emergency and a major catastrophe.

Political will

Political will and donor understanding is critical in attaining a better balance between disaster prevention and reaction.

Investing in ecosystem management as an insurance measure for disaster risk reduction urgently requires embracing innovative ways of working. It also requires bridging the gap between the traditional ‘humanitarian aid’ and ‘environment’ communities, between developed and developing nations, and between the public and private sectors.

Too many emergency appeals struggle to achieve their funding targets; too many relief and recovery efforts are not completed before another disaster strikes; too many rebuilding operations are not sustainable in the long run.

We must accelerate public-private partnerships in developing the economic model and hence the business case for investing in environmentally-sound disaster risk reduction. New ideas, new partnerships and new investments are needed if we are to truly make a difference both for people and for our planet.

Nature can offer and must be seen as part of a solution for a safer tomorrow.


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