Letting Nature Protect Us From Disaster

unep image

Image courtesy of UNEP.

If you want to avoid being hammered by the next hurricane or storm surge or prevent massive floods, one good bet is to protect your environment. This was a key theme emerging from last week's Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Switzerland, where the topic was disasters, but a key message was: work with nature, not against it.

The Global Platform is a who's who of municipal, national and international players figuring out how to disaster-proof our planet, which is plagued by increasingly devastating natural catastrophes with the promise of more to come courtesy of climate change.

The Platform brings in many people from the frontlines: mayors trying to protect their cities from the next storm or flood and staff from non-governmental organizations doing the pain-staking work helping communities in developing countries adapt to climate change before it is too late, for example.

One colorful case example after another made the case that healthy ecosystems provide a wide-range of valuable services, including regulating the risk posed by natural hazards.

A reason floods have claimed so many lives in Haiti in recent years, relative to neighboring Dominican Republic, is that grinding poverty has forced people to cut down most of their forests. No trees means that each time it rains, flash floods and mudslides can quickly claim lives. As another example, Hurricane Nargis went from being a merely bad hurricane to a disaster for Myannmar in part because of degraded mangroves swamps and deforestation - ecosystems that were no longer able to protect.

Many communities are taking heed. Mumbai's representative, for example, noted that fast urbanization and river obstruction in the city was putting people at flood risk, but that efforts to allow the surrounding Mithi River to run its course more freely could help stem losses.

Saving the environment can save money as well as lives. The 2011 Global Assessment Report was much-discussed during the meeting, and lists studies that have found that healthy coral reefs in the Caribbean provide US$0.7-2.2 billion of coastal protection from erosion and storm; coastal wetlands in the USA can act as levees and provide US$23.2 billion per year in protection from storms and that forests in Andermatt, Switzerland provides US$2.5 million of annual avalanche protection. In yet another benefit, these same ecosystems can also provide livelihoods - for example fisheries based near coral reefs - if they are left intact.

Humans do not need to be the helpless victims of disasters. Our activities impact the timing, frequency and magnitude of the physical processes that cause disaster - and this means that we can wrestle back control by protecting the environment around us, and in turn let it protect us.

This has been a guest post by special contributor Roy Brooke.

See also: UNEP - Environment and Disaster Risks
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