The southern Indian State of Kerala is famous for its various tourist attractions such as wildlife which includes endangered species like the Nilgiri Tahr goat and the lion-tailed macaque, the Vallam Kali traditional boat race and the Kumily spice festival.
It is not surprising then that the state received about 14.6 million foreign and domestic tourists in 2017. According to a January 2018 report from India’s Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR), tourism contributes 10 per cent of Kerala’s GDP and around 23.5 per cent of the state’s total employment.
However, since the onset of the Monsoon season in late May, the picture has not been so rosy for the state’s 33 million plus residents.
Intense rains and flooding, the worst in nearly a century, have not only wreaked havoc on property, flora and fauna but also resulted in the deaths of more than 400 people. Furthermore, over 1,000,000 people have sought shelter in the 3,274 camps situated in the state’s flood-hit districts. The magnitude of this year’s flooding was most likely exacerbated by urbanization –which reduces permeable surfaces – dam management, deforestation, and uncontrolled quarrying and mining.
But disastrous floods are not unique to Kerala. They are an indicator of the need to address ecosystem degradation – a major driver of disaster risk such as flooding or other adverse climate conditions.
A report by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, published in 2015, identified a strong link between disasters and ecosystems. It noted environmental degradation can cause or exacerbate disasters or vice-versa.
So, while Kerala – and numerous other parts of our planet – continue to bear the brunt of disasters, here are seven reasons why we need to embrace nature-based approaches to reduce disaster-related risks.
Resilience: Healthy, well-managed ecosystems, such as forests, sand dunes, reefs and wetlands, perform important functions that reduce disaster risk and can play an important role in building community resilience.
Blending engineering infrastructure into natural infrastructure: In California’s Napa Valley, infrastructure – in the form of wetlands creation and protection as well as floodplain restoration – has been combined with investment in conventional rock and concrete flood protection.
Cost-effectiveness: Inclusion of green infrastructure can, in many cases, provide the same services and benefits as engineered infrastructures at a lower cost. In North Carolina, the cost of conventional infrastructure for storm water control has been estimated at US$3.24 per 1000 gallons while natural infrastructure for the same purpose only costs US$0.47 per 1000 gallons. According to Swiss Re, coral reef and mangrove revival in Barbados could reduce the potential damage from climate change-related losses by 35 per cent while increasing economic benefits from investment in the Folkstone Marine Park.
Hazard prevention or buffering: Annually, Switzerland invests 150 million Swiss francs in forest management which provides protection against rockfall, snow avalanches and landslides. It is also 5 to 10 times less costly than construction and maintenance of engineered measures. In Jamaica, coral reefs and sea grasses were found to provide up to 40 per cent shoreline protection against storm surges and beach erosion.
Supporting livelihoods: Healthy and well-managed ecosystems can help reduce the exposure of people and their productive assets such as farmland, fishing areas, and agroforestry trees to hazard impacts. For instance, fish is the main source of protein for nearly one billion people and accounts for at least 15 per cent of animal protein in the diets of a further two billion people. Wetlands provide a critical habitat for local fisheries as well as safe drinking water, and at the same time help regulating water flows and minimize the risk of flooding and drought. However, the world has lost nearly 50 per cent of its wetlands.
A no-regret investment: Sustainable ecosystem management provides multiple social, economic and environmental benefits besides disaster risk reduction. They enhance resilience to disasters while contributing to national gross domestic product, poverty reduction, food security, biodiversity and carbon sequestration.
Ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction is becoming mainstream: Countries are increasingly becoming aware of nature-based solutions as a way to enhance climate change adaptation and mitigation, and are investing in conserving, restoring and managing ecosystems. Following Typhoon Yolanda in 2013, the Philippines pledged US$22 million from its national budget towards mangrove restoration and rehabilitation activities in affected coastal zones to function as natural buffers against future storm surge impacts.
Between 2013 and 2016, UN Environment, in partnership with the European Commission, implemented eco-based disaster risk reduction demonstration projects in Afghanistan, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan.
It has actively supported partnerships and networks to build a global community of decision makers, advocates and practitioners who integrate ecosystem management solutions for disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and development strategies.