Why do ecosystems matter for disaster risk reduction?

Five reasons why ecosystems are central to disaster risk reduction:

1. Human well-being depends on ecosystems: Disaster resilient communities, especially in rural areas, are based on healthy ecosystems and diverse livelihoods. Healthy ecosystems are central to hazard mitigation by providing, for example, flood regulation and coastal protection and protecting steep slopes. They also increase the resilience of vulnerable people to withstand, cope with and recover from disasters resulting from hazard events such as droughts, hurricanes, earthquakes and others. This is because they provide many livelihood benefits, such as food, firewood, clean water, fibres, and medicine, resources communities require for resilience in the face of disasters and climate change. A degraded ecosystem is unable to provide these mitigation and resource benefits and therefore significantly increases human vulnerability.

2. Ecosystems such as wetlands, forests, and coastal systems can provide cost-effective natural buffers against natural events and the impacts of climate change. According to the World Bank (2004), investments in preventive measures, including in maintaining healthy ecosystems, is seven-fold more cost effective than dealing with the a disaster’s aftermath without any prevention efforts.

3. Healthy and diverse ecosystems are more resilient to extreme weather events. Intact ecosystems are less likely to be affected by, and more likely to recover from, the impacts of extreme events. However, disasters can affect ecosystems through habitat loss and species mortality and invasive species spread. Poorly designed post-disaster clean-up efforts can also negatively impact ecosystems and hinder progress toward achieving the objectives of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and Millennium Development Goals.

4. Ecosystem degradation, especially when related to forests and peatlands, reduces the ability of natural ecosystems to sequester carbon, increasing the incidence and impact of climate change and climate related disasters.

5. Furthermore, human conflicts can cause devastation to communities similar to the effects of natural hazards and are often caused by competition over scarce natural resources. These conflicts cause further environmental degradation. Environmental management is therefore essential to both decrease risk of conflict and allow post-conflict recovery.


Fishing in coastal areas of Sri Lanka


Disasters, livelihoods and ecosystem services

Natural hazards such as droughts, floods, fires and earthquakes threaten poor people by imposing human and economic costs, including loss of life, injuries, disabilities and displacement, as well as damage to agriculture, livestock, and infrastructure. Many of the world’s poorest people are heavily dependent on ecosystem services for physical protection from these hazards and as key provisions for their livelihoods. Many rural societies have developed extraordinary capacities to cope with environmental stress by making use of these ecosystem services.

 For example, intact mangroves not only protect poor people living on coastal land to storms, they also provide fuel wood on a daily basis. In addition, mangroves are important breeding places for fish, shellfish and contribute to shoreline stability. Forests in drylands areas contribute significantly to food security. They provide fuel wood for energy (70.8% of Sudan’s energy), fodder for livestock and add variety to diets and also represent a significant source of food and income in times of drought. However, many of these ecosystems and their services are under threat  (for instance, over the last 50 years, about one-third of the world’s mangrove forests have been lost due to overexploitation, conversion into large scale development such as shrimp farms or tourism infrastructure) and there is a need for conservation, humanitarian and development organizations to collaborate in promoting sustainable solutions for community resilience.

Additionally, poor people often live on marginal land such as steep slopes or flood-prone riverbanks, in poorly built houses and with limited access to social security services that can help in the aftermath of a disaster. Reducing the vulnerability of the poor to hazards must focus on prevention and preparedness. Sustainable management of natural resources, infrastructure improvement, diverse livelihood options and low cost local initiatives (like agricultural cooperatives, food banks, environmental conservation and reforestation) can reduce vulnerability.

Therefore, including nature-based solutions for disaster risk reduction and promoting sound environmental management  in development planning is likely to make a major contribution to achieving sustainable livelihoods and decreasing vulnerability.

  • Sweet potatoes garden on the slopes of Arfak Mountains, West Papua
  • Willows in Skadar National Park
  • Ecosystems, Livelihoods and Disasters

    Ecosystems, Livelihoods and Disasters

    Photo: CEM

  • Agriculture area beside Mount Elgon National Park, Uganda - a Livelihoods & Landscapes site
  • Wetlands are important sources of livelihoods for local people.