13 Oct 2017 Story Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Home safe home: How a healthy environment can protect us from disaster

In this year alone – from Sri Lanka to Sierra Leone, California to the Caribbean, and Mexico to Madagascar – drought, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, landslides and wildfires have wreaked havoc on lives and livelihoods.

Today, the International Day for Disaster Reduction is an opportunity to take a step back from the headlines and reflect on the human impact of disasters and what we can do to mitigate the misery they visit upon millions. 

The theme of this year’s day is “home safe home”, which captures the essence of what is at stake, and belies the reality of the 26 million people who are displaced each year by natural disasters. On average, every second of every day, a natural disaster forces someone to flee the safety of their home. Such an act of survival is often accompanied by the loss of a livelihood and the disintegration of a community, stability and well-being.

The trend is well-established, yet the story remains the same. If we are to see an end to such needless suffering, governments must embrace policies that reduce the risk of disaster risk – as opposed to simply responding after the fact.

While received wisdom suggests that disasters strike without warning, there is now a clear understanding of how poverty, rapid urbanization, weak governance, climate change, environmental degradation and the decline of ecosystems interact to increase disaster risk around the world.

Environmental degradation and poor management make natural disasters both more likely, and more serious. The degradation of forests, wetlands, and other ecosystems poses a double threat: It increases the risk of disasters, and it makes communities much more vulnerable to their effects.

Meanwhile, climate change is already driving people from their homes, a phenomenon that is likely to become more pronounced in the years ahead. Drought and desertification, rising sea levels, climate-driven natural disasters and competition for resources may push ever more people to migrate. The International Panel on Climate Change predicts that climate mobility will become a defining humanitarian and development issue in the years ahead.

The interlacing trends of climate change, population growth, rising consumption, large infrastructure projects and environmental degradation may lead to greater numbers of people displaced in future. This is particularly likely if these trends occur in the context of inadequate responses from governments and the international community to build the resilience of countries and communities to these changes. The most commonly cited figure is that there could be as many as 200 million people displaced for environmental reasons by 2050.

That would mean that, in a world of nine billion people, one in 45 would have been forced from home for environmental reasons, and entire low-lying island territories may have to be abandoned. Addressing such displacement may be the defining environmental challenge of the twenty-first century.

As the understanding of these links has grown, governments have increasingly embraced evidence-based approaches, interdisciplinary strategies and innovative solutions to mitigate disaster risk in all its forms.

International organizations, states and communities are increasingly cooperating to this end. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction is a 15-year, voluntary, non-binding agreement that recognizes that states have the primary role in reducing disaster risk but that responsibility should be shared with other stakeholders including local government, the private sector, civil society and communities. The Framework also calls for dedicated action to tackle underlying disaster risk drivers, such as poverty and inequality.

Both global and regional frameworks can provide an anchor for aspirations and a vision to build on. But without concrete and resolute action from governments, societies and communities to manifest them, such frameworks will decay and crumble. Recognizing that disasters can affect poor and rich countries alike, and that equitable and sustainable development will remain elusive if countries are constantly in recovery mode, the onus for action is on all of us.

With foresight, political will, and in a spirit of cooperation, our collective focus must shift from firefighting to fire prevention if we are to diminish disaster risk and attenuate suffering.

Learn more about UN Environment’s work on disasters and conflicts.