Reducing the risk of disasters, the natural way


This article was first published on IUCN by Dr Sylvia Tippmann


As climate change takes hold, disasters such as hurricanes, floods and landslides are becoming more unpredictable, worldwide. What’s more, the areas that are vulnerable to these events are often densely populated and unprotected because of factors such as unsustainable development and environmental degradation.

IUCN has many years’ experience in managing and restoring ecosystems such as wetlands, forests, river basins, and this experience can help protect people and their livelihoods from the worst impacts of natural disasters.

IUCN’s Ecosystem Management Programme (EMP), backed by the Commission on Ecosystem Management (CEM) — a network of experts who work on a range of issues related to ecosystem management — is pushing for a common approach to reducing the risk of disasters. This approach is based on ecosystem management and restoration, one in which relevant sectors such as conservation, development and planning, and humanitarian aid all work together.

I talked to Radhika Murti of EMP to find out more.

“Healthy ecosystems can reduce the risks and impacts of disasters,” she explains. “They provide physical protection during a disaster and emergency or alternative sources of livelihood following a disaster. Coastal forests can help reduce the impact of storm surges and sandstorms, healthy forests can also regulate floods and stabilize slopes.”

Building a concrete wall for flood protection doesn’t give any additional benefits, but planting mangroves for the same reason does, she adds.

Disaster risk reduction is a multi-faceted concept, Radhika explains. It involves analysing and reducing the causes of disasters, reducing exposure to hazards, reducing the vulnerability of people and property, wise environmental management, and being better prepared to cope with adverse events.

And what does ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction look like in practice? IUCN is implementing a project in mountain ecosystems in Nepal, Peru and Uganda.

“We have chosen three pilot countries to field test our approach: Nepal, Peru and Uganda,” says Radhika. “Uganda is very interesting because it has ecosystems that are particularly vulnerable: the drylands of Karamoja, river and wetland ecosystems of Lakes Victoria, Albert and Edward, and the mountain ranges of the Rwenzoris and Mount Elgon.”

“One issue in this area is livestock adaptation. Because of the economic pressure to produce cash crops, monoculture has made the land more vulnerable to climate change and farmers have suffered from mud slides. Reforestation can decrease the risk of disaster while providing other benefits for people such as shelter and food. Policies have been put in place that make farmers less dependent on cash crops and allow for diverse farming.”