No ecosystem is an island

By CEM Member Dr. Ilan Kelman
Disasters kill people and destroy infrastructure. They are a problem for society as a whole. So where does nature come into the equation?

Mekong floods 2008

Natural ecosystems help reduce the damage from disasters while supporting livelihoods needed for post-disaster recovery. If we want to prevent the impact disasters have on people, we have to manage and restore our ecosystems properly.

Nature supplies us with food, water, and building materials. When we extract these essential resources we have an impact on nature. Too often, this impact destroys ecosystems.

The use of dynamite or cyanide for fishing, for example, kills nearby coral reefs, which means that when a cyclone hits, the storm surge damage will be far greater. The dead coral reefs no longer reduce the wave energy striking the shore, leaving coastal settlements exposed to the full force of the storm.

Similarly, when wetlands are drained for urban development and paved over with roads, properties and car parks, flooding becomes a major issue. Rainwater, instead of being soaked up gradually by the wetland and released slowly downstream, runs directly off paved surfaces and into the nearest waterways. Unsurprisingly, they cannot cope with the sudden influx of water and they flood, threatening both lives and livelihoods.

Harming or neglecting nature can return to haunt us through disasters. The answer isn’t banning anyone from ever touching any part of the natural world. The real answer lies in recognizing the links between investing in nature and disaster risk reduction.

In January 2001, an earthquake in El Salvador killed more than 800 people. Three quarters of the fatalities occurred in one community when a landslide buried their houses. The slope above the community had been partially deforested for building houses. Without the tree roots to bind the soil together, it was highly susceptible to landslides.

In contrast, communities in the Alps save lives and help prevent extensive damage by managing forests to reduce avalanche and landslide risks.

In Vietnam, the cost of replanting coastal mangroves was earned back sevenfold after one year of reduced dyke maintenance costs. That is not counting the lives saved and damage prevented from typhoons. Furthermore, maintaining these mangrove forests has prevented the coasts from being used for large-scale shrimp farms, with all the consequent problems, while supporting small-scale livelihoods reliant on shrimps, crabs and molluscs, which thrive in healthy mangrove ecosystems.

Here, ecosystem management has not only contributed to reducing the risk of typhoon disasters, but has also saved money and supported local livelihoods.

Taking nature’s ecosystems into consideration, along with our interaction with ecosystems, will help us have healthier and safer lives and livelihoods. Unless we commit to investing in ecosystem restoration and better management, we will continue to create disasters, hurting ourselves and those we love.

Dr. Ilan Kelman
Senior Research Fellow
Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo, Norway
CEM Member

Work area: 
Disaster Risk Reduction
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