Is nature a viable solution for disaster risk reduction in Africa?

Increasing challenges with disasters are linked to environmental degradation but yet are not always recognized as an environmental emergency. The 6th Africa Regional Platform and 5th High Level Meeting on disaster risk reduction held in Mauritius on 22-25 November 2016 provided the right opportunity for IUCN to increase awareness on the importance to invest in nature-based solutions to reduce disaster risks.

Production of plants in nursery for restoration in Senegal

“Is nature a viable solution for disaster risk reduction?” This was a question posed to the 36 workshop participants from Western, Central, Eastern and Southern Africa convened by IUCN in collaboration with the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction  (UNISDR), in Mauritius on 20-21 November 2016, to mobilize actions for ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction (Eco-DRR). A simple question that can easily be answered with the increasing evidence on the importance of ecosystems such as mangroves, coral reefs and forests in providing protection from hazards like  floods, storm surges and landslides.

However despite increasing evidence and lessons from past disasters, the use of ecosystem management to reduce disaster risk through for example protected areas, sustainable natural resource management and habitat restoration, still remains underdeveloped worldwide and mostly implemented at pilot level. Furthermore much action is often catalysed after disasters happened. For example following hurricane Katrina, the US congress approved US$ 500 million for the restoration of its coastal national parks and salt marshes, following evidence that coastal ecosystems helped reduce damages from the hazard. However, this decision came at a cost of 1,836 lives and an economic loss of US$ 81 billion.

Eco-DRR has a key role to play in Africa and worldwide by providing proactive solutions to effectively shift from disaster responses to prevention. Healthy and well-managed ecosystems do not only provide physical protection from the direct impacts of natural hazards but they also provide multiple societal benefits through providing subsistence, which in turn can reduce the underlying vulnerabilities of communities and strengthen resilience to disasters.

For example, healthy soil ecosystems are essential for community resilience to slow-onset hazards like droughts. Yet Africa is the region that is the most severely affected by land degradation and desertification which in turn exacerbates existing challenges like poverty and food insecurity. According to a 2015 report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), “Desertification affects around 45 % of Africa’s land area, with 55 % of this area at high or very high risk of further degradation”. The causes of land degradation and desertification include conversion of natural habitats into agricultural land, infrastructure development, and overexploitation of forest products. Such environmental challenges require nature-based solutions like sustainable land management interventions implemented in Senegal and Burkina Faso and showcased in the workshop (See video below). According to UNEP, Africa would generate about US$ 71.8 billion if all countries were to invest in sustainable land management interventions.

Video on land restoration activities conducted in senegal

Video of IUCN's land restoration work implemented in Senegal to reduce risks from floods and land salinization

It is thus time to mobilize actions and scale-up investment in natural infrastructure across the continent. Bringing participants from both the ministries of disaster management and environment for this workshop proved to be a strategic step in this direction. While participants generally agreed that Eco-DRR is indeed a viable solution for risk reduction, the discussions also provided insights on some of the barriers to the uptake of this practise, citing for example the prioritization of other issues like infrastructure development, the lack of knowledge and awareness and the lack of incentives. Further discussions also identify multisectoral collaboration including sectors like environment and climate change as a key step forward to ensure that ecosystem management is recognized and integrated into DRR strategies.

Reflecting on the workshop, Martin Owor, Commissioner, Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Management from the office of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Uganda said: “After the workshop, I have come to see the direct link between  ecosystems and disaster risk reduction. Because prior to it, for example in Uganda, we have a forum for disaster risk reduction separate from the forum for management of the environment. Following this conference, I see a very clear direct link between the two. And going back home, we want to combine the two forums because we see that what we are addressing is the same. We have been addressing droughts, we have been addressing flooding. And yet all these are based on the degradation of the ecosystems. And therefore if we look deeper into the ecosystems, we should be able to manage risk reduction better”.

The workshop preceded two important events for the continent, the 6th session Africa Regional Platform and 5th High Level Meeting on disaster risk reduction where workshop participants and IUCN intervened to ensure that nature-based solutions are not left out in the key outcomes of these events.

Adopted on 25th November 2016, the Mauritius Declaration and Programme of Action for the Implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 in Africa recognize the importance of ecosystem-based approach for DRR and provide the right momentum to invest in Eco-DRR as a cross-cutting issue in Africa.

For more information on Eco-DRR: see here and here.

For more information on the platform and ministerial meeting: see here

The pre-platform workshop was supported by the Japan Biodiversity Fund under the Convention on Biological Diversity.

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