Nature's protective power

IUCN experts are gathering at a UN conference in Japan this week to deliver the evidence to policy makers that healthy ecosystems play a critical role in protecting people from disasters.

Aerial view of Fire Island wilderness breach after Hurricane Sandy

The UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, taking place 14 to 18 March in Sendai, Japan, aims to build the resilience of nations and communities to disasters such as cyclones, landslides, earthquakes, droughts and floods. Attended by governments, humanitarian agencies and NGOs, the conference will adopt a global, post-2015 Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) for reducing the risk of disasters.

The UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction estimates that between 2000 and 2012, some 1.2 million people died as a result of disasters; 2.9 billion people were affected and disaster-related damage cost around US$1.7 trillion. Meanwhile, climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of disasters.

As a result, disaster risk reduction (DRR) has become a critical part of sustainable development strategies. It covers a range of activities, from public education to engineering solutions such as constructing sea walls to introducing building regulations aimed at protecting cities against earthquakes.

The role of healthy ecosystems in providing cheap, reliable protection against natural hazards is being increasingly recognised. Forests and other vegetation help to stabilise slopes, prevent floods and reduce soil erosion and desertification. Coastal habitats, from corals to mangroves, protect people living near the sea from the worst of storms and tidal waves. But investment in this ‘natural infrastructure’ is vastly underexplored as a policy approach to reducing the risk of disasters and building resilience.

That is why IUCN is working to gather and promote the evidence among policy makers in the field of sustainable development.

Degraded ecosystems exacerbate the impacts of disasters on populations, especially the poor and the vulnerable.

In November 2013, 5,500 people died from strong storm surges along exposed coastlines when Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippine province of Leyte. However other communities in the same area remained relatively unaffected. Their relative safety is credited to the presence of mangroves that protected these communities from the impact of the typhoon.

Investments in nature-based solutions deliver multiple benefits to society.

In Vietnam, planting mangroves has reduced the risk of disasters and enhanced communities’ livelihoods. Planting 9,462 hectares of forest (of which 8,961 hectares were mangroves) in 166 communes in disaster-prone northern Vietnam, was found to reduce damage to dykes from typhoons by an estimated US$ 80,000-295,000 but the total savings due to avoided risks were much higher, estimated at around US$ 15 million. Mangroves also provided additional outcomes to these communities equivalent at US$ 344,000-6.7 million by increasing yields of aquaculture products (by 200 to 800%).

Investment in nature-based solutions can be cost effective complement to conventional engineering solutions.

In Japan, instead of increasing the height of seawalls following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, the Miyagi prefectural government is creating a new forest band behind the sea wall. The cost of the new forest plan is estimated to be less than the estimated cost of the increase in seawalls of JPY 5.4 billion.

Protected areas are a key tool for reducing disaster risk

The world’s protected area system currently covers about 19% of land and marine areas. Although primarily designated for their nature conservation and recreational values, protected areas are increasingly being recognised as potential tools for reducing disaster risk.

Two studies have been recently published on the role of protected areas. An IUCN study Safe Havens: Protected Areas for Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation, details 18 case studies showing how protected areas can be hugely influential in reducing vulnerability and damage.

Today at the Sendai conference, IUCN and the Ministry of Environment of Japan launched a handbook Protected Areas as a Tool for Disaster Risk Reduction that provides practical guidance on the effective use of protected areas as tools to reduce the risk and impacts of disasters.

Work area: 
Global Policy
Protected Areas
South America
North America
East and Southern Africa
West and Central Africa
West Asia
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