Blog Crossroads | 16 Jul, 2018

To curb disaster damage, we need smart investments in nature

As the destruction caused by natural disasters grows in intensity, we urgently need to invest in innovative ways of protecting ourselves from them. Conserving healthy ecosystems such as mangroves, wetlands and forests is an example of such smart investment, writes Vinod Thomas, Indian economist and former senior vice president for Independent Evaluation at the World Bank.

Countries and financiers typically underinvest in reducing the risks stemming from natural disasters, as the benefits are perceived to accrue in an uncertain future – and often outside of the focus of election cycles. As climate change raises the bar for disaster resilience, these investment gaps are that much higher. Disaster risk reduction is an urgent priority worldwide, across poor and rich countries. Three of the deadliest storms ever occurred in south and southwest United States and the Caribbean in 2017, while deadly heatwaves swept through the United Kingdom and severe droughts hit Sudan and South Africa in the same year. The world urgently needs to invest in protecting communities from natural disasters, as highlighted in my new book, Climate change and natural disasters – Transforming economies and policies.

In Southeast Asia, the damages from recent calamities would have been lessened with better management of mangroves.

The damage caused by disasters is more intense today not only because of climate change but also due to the greater exposure of people located in ecologically fragile areas, and their increased vulnerability to damages to the integrity and diversity of nature. As we face these growing threats, disaster risk management needs to factor in environmental and  ecosystem management frontally into development plans. In Southeast Asia, the damages from recent calamities would have been lessened with better management of mangroves which protect coastal areas against storms and sea surges, while providing the breeding grounds for fish and livelihoods in fishing communities.


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Superstorm Haiyan in the Philippines, 2013

© Vinod Thomas

Another case in point is the over-extraction of groundwater which has caused severe land subsidence in mega-cities like Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, and Bangkok. In just 25 years, the Mekong Delta has transformed from a zero-subsidence area into a rapidly subsiding delta. Continuing land subsidence will increase flood devastation as well as structural damages to roads, railways, dikes, pipes, and buildings. In Viet Nam, seawater intrusion is affecting rice production. Meanwhile, Tokyo’s land subsidence abated after the city introduced groundwater use restrictions and new sources for water in the 1960s.

Similarly, ecological conservation is key to managing disaster risks. Forest conservation on steep slopes reduces the probabilities of landslides and flooding that we have increasingly been seeing, for example in Brazil. Urban developers need to keep in mind that impermeable surfaces can lead to flash flooding. Maintenance and management of waterways, drainage systems and dams can significantly reduce the impacts of floods. 

Whether it is in improving nature’s buffers against disasters or in responding to calamities, technological innovations can improve effectiveness. Vast changes in data assembly, analysis and deployment allow better tie-in of policies to the ecological landscape, as for example in the promotion of eco-system based protective infrastructure in Thailand. The most visible payoffs in disaster management lie in early warning systems and the robust evacuation of populations living in the paths of typhoons, reducing the death toll from similar events. Japan’s Meteorological Agency recently updated its Evaluation Alert System to map the intensity of weather-related hazards and people’s special needs.

Communication of the ecological status and coordination of responses can also benefit from technological advances. In disaster management, Turkey has put in place a new National Emergency Management Information System along with an Uninterrupted and Secure Communication System Project to link authorities at different levels of government during emergencies. Australia’s Emergency Alert enables states and territories to issue coordinated warnings to landline and mobile telephones linked to properties in areas identified as being at risk.

Governments may be the lead actors in resilience building, but businesses, households and all segments of society need to be actively engaged.

Disaster readiness also involves zoning regulations to restrict new development in hazard-prone areas and building codes to protect businesses, homes and neighborhoods. These are an essential part of minimizing the kind of disruption to supply chains and information networks that we saw during the massive floods in Sri Lanka, Chennai, India and Thailand in the past decade.  With rising sea levels and temperatures, previous norms of the safe distances from the coastline for human settlements must be revised.  

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Smoke from the 2017 California wildfires 

© Vinod Thomas

With the increased frequency of floods and storms, governments and external financiers need to facilitate credit for ecological rehabilitation and care, and for rebuilding lives and livelihoods, especially for the poor and vulnerable. We have also seen high payoffs to investing in education, information sharing and capacity development in anticipating and dealing with calamities. The environmental risks and the weak handling by the authorities of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the costliest disaster in the US, delivered lessons for prevention and coordination across government units during Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Education and capacity development will be key to all phases of the process of disaster risk management. Prevention must have a large component of environmental care. Relief and recovery take place in emergency conditions, but they too need sound protocols and new technologies for environmental management like the other phases. In reconstruction, climate mitigation should become integral to the infrastructure investments. Governments may be the lead actors in resilience building, but businesses, households and all segments of society need to be actively engaged.

IUCN Members can help harness nature’s full potential to protect us from the rising menace of floods, storms and other disasters.  

IUCN Members are uniquely placed to recognize the interplay among ecology, climate change and natural hazards, and spearhead actions for nature-based solutions. IUCN’s fine work in integrated approaches to supporting healthier ecosystems like wetlands, forests and coastal areas is a great starting point for reducing the risks associated with disasters and their impacts, especially on the most vulnerable, the poor. By working in partnerships, IUCN Members can help scale up nature-based solutions to climate change, harnessing nature’s full potential to protect us from the rising menace of floods, storms and other disasters.  

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