12 Oct 2018 Story Disasters & conflicts

Investing in nature to reduce disaster losses


The people of Kerala are used to coping with heavy monsoon rains and flooding which strike the Indian subcontinent every summer. This year was catastrophically unlike any other. In August 2018, torrential rains led to major floods in the south Indian state of Kerala, forcing the evacuation of at least a million people and causing almost 500 casualties and an estimated US$ 3.8 billion in losses. Authorities were forced to open dams, engulfing residents in floodwaters and landslides. Several other factors were cited to explain the unprecedented flooding, including quarrying, mining, deforestation and settlements encroaching on floodplains.

In advance of the 19th International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, on 13 October, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) released a report highlighting that direct economic losses from climate-related disasters increased by a staggering 151% between 1998 and 2017. Over these 20 years, India lost US$ 79.5 billion to disasters. 2017 was a particularly costly year worldwide and 2018 might prove even costlier.

Multiple benefits come along with the restoration of wetlands, among others the storage of rainwater runoff, mitigation of flooding and improvement of water quality. Credits: Texas Community Watershed Partner

Investing in nature - through ecosystem protection and restoration - can significantly reduce such losses. Ecosystems, such as forests, wetlands, sand dunes and mangroves can act as natural buffers to reducing many types of hazard events while providing women and men with food and income. For example, in Jamaica, coral reefs and sea grasses were found to provide up to 40% shoreline protection against storm surges and beach erosion, significantly reducing the need for engineered structures. In the United States, coastal wetlands helped to avoid US$625 million in direct flood damages. This resulted in a 16 per cent average reduction in annual flood losses and a reduction of surge heights by up to 9.4 cm per kilometre inland.

Over the past decade, the role of ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction (Eco-DRR) has received increased global attention. In March 2015, UN Member States adopted the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, which for the first time recognized sustainable ecosystem management as a priority for disaster risk reduction.

“Ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction is a sustainable preventive approach to reducing disaster risk while providing livelihoods benefits to communities, and it also makes economic sense,” says Karen Sudmeier-Rieux, Senior Adviser on Disaster Risk Reduction at UN Environment.

Mangroves protect coastal areas from storm surges and the exposure of heavy rain fall events. Credits: Global Resilience Partnership

“The close inter-linkages between sound environmental management, climate change impacts and disaster responses require a more systematic and comprehensive approach to disaster risk management”.

This is why UN Environment works in close partnership with multiple actors to promote sustainable ecosystem management in reducing disasters and supporting sustainable ecosystem management. Since 2008, UN Environment has been a core member of the Partnership for Environment and Disaster Risk Reduction (PEDRR), a global alliance of 24 UN agencies, NGOs and specialist institutes which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

For further information, please contact Karen Sudmeier-Rieux (Karen.sudmeier[at]un.org) or Marisol Estrella (Marisol.estrella[at]un.org) at the Crisis Management Branch, UN Environment.

Learn more about UN Environment’s work and the environmental causes and consequences of disasters and conflicts.