UNEP Statement During UN General Assembly Debate on Disaster Risk Reduction Fri, Apr 13, 2012

"Applying Ecosystem-based Approaches for Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation" Sub-theme Statement delivered by Mr Ibrahim Thiaw, Director, UNEP Division of Environmental Policy Implementation

Photo credit: Evan Schneider/UNPhoto

General Assembly Thematic Debate on

Disaster Risk Reduction, 12 April 2012 – New York

Good afternoon. Thank you for this opportunity offered to UNEP to address the General Assembly and contribute to this important discussion. I am also speaking on behalf of the Partnership for Environment and Disaster Risk Reduction (PEDRR) , a global alliance that promotes ecosystems-based approaches for disaster risk reduction and for climate change adaptation. The Partnership aims at advancing best practices and informed policies, based on science, practitioners' experience and indigenous knowledge.

While the linkages between ecosystem management and disasters are now widely documented, they are not yet well-acknowledged by policy makers. As a consequence, these linkages are not fully reflected in disaster management and risk reduction plans.

A dual correlation characterises these linkages:  On the one hand, degraded environments can cause or exacerbate disasters (deforested slopes can cause more landslides, while reclaimed wetlands can worsen flooding in urban areas). On the other hand, disasters can cause or aggravate environmental degradation (hurricanes can damage coral reefs and impact on local fisheries). Climate change and climate variability pose an additional "stress factor" that is contributing to the negative impacts of water- and climate-related hazards, such as storms, heat waves, wildfires and droughts.

But the close linkages between environment and disasters also present an opportunity. Appropriate management of ecosystems can be harnessed for reducing disaster risks and adapting to climate-related risks. With this in mind, I would like to convey three key messages.

The first message is: healthy and well-managed ecosystems, such as wetlands, forests, coral reefs and seagrasses, can act as natural infrastructure to buffer against common hazards. Healthy ecosystems are often the only "insurance coverage" for poor communities.

In western Jamaica, UNEP found that coral reefs and seagrasses play a significant role in protecting beaches against storm surges and coastal erosion, which are major threats to local livelihoods and Jamaica's tourism industry.   In Bolivia, community-based forest rehabilitation improved both slope stability and the condition of watersheds, increasing community resilience to landslides and extended dry periods.  

In north-eastern India, in Orissa, the State government and communities are working together to restore floodplains and allow floods of moderate intensity. This strategy provides significant benefits for local agriculture and downstream fisheries, while sustainably managing flood regimes and water flows.

The second message is: healthy and well-managed coastal and terrestrial ecosystems support resilient livelihoods. Ecosystems sustain human livelihoods and provide for basic needs, such as food, shelter and water, before, during and after hazard events. Well-managed, healthy ecosystems are better able to support the recovery needs of communities, such as re-starting crop production. Ecosystems, therefore, form an essential part of local coping and recovery efforts.

In Lebanon, IUCN worked with the Government and farming communities to re-establish forests planted with mixed tree species– utilizing both native, fire-tolerant trees and pine trees- in order to better manage fire hazards and sustain livelihoods from selling pine nuts. This initiative led to a cost-effective solution for reducing fire hazards and facilitating community action.  

In Burkina Faso and Niger, local farmers restored degraded drylands by applying traditional agricultural and agroforestry techniques, such as on-farm tree planting and planting in shallow pits, to improve soil and water retention. Three decades later, hundreds of thousands of farmers have replicated, adapted and benefited from these techniques, significantly increasing local resilience to droughts. In Burkina Faso, more than 200,000 hectares of drylands have been rehabilitated, now producing an additional 80,000 tons of food per year. In Niger, more than 200 million on-farm trees have been regenerated, providing 500,000 additional tons of food per year. Women have particularly benefited from the improved supply of water, fuelwood and other tree products.

In Ethiopia, the Government and local communities, together with the World Food Programme (WFP), have been implementing, since the 1980s, a sustainable land management and rain catchment programme, which has vastly increased food production and mitigated the impacts of drought and floods. The programme known as MERET has increased food security of MERET households by 50%, reduced the average annual food gap from 6 to 3 months, rehabilitated 1 million hectares of land, and reforested 600,000 hectares.  A programme evaluation in 2005 found that the return of investment averaged more than 12% for main activities implemented through the programme.

Finally, my third message is: applying ecosystem management for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation is a no-regret investment. Sustainable ecosystems management is the only activity which could impact on all three fundamental elements of the disaster risk equation –regulating hazards, controlling exposure and reducing vulnerability. Furthermore, ecosystems provide multiple social, economic and environmental benefits – regardless of whether a disaster materializes. Aside from hazard mitigation, ecosystems sustain livelihoods, contribute to GDP, support poverty reduction and food security, ensure biodiversity and facilitate carbon sequestration.

Especially in the context of climate change and the scale of solutions needed to adapt to weather extremes, human-built infrastructure - such as dams, dykes and seawalls - alone may not be feasible, due to their high costs and technology requirements. The "green" and "blue" natural infrastructures provided by ecosystems are often more locally-accessible and less expensive to maintain than human-built, "gray" infrastructure. Sometimes, human-made "built" and the natural "green" responses are combined as complementary solutions. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Ecosystem-based measures for risk reduction are viewed to be cost-effective. In the Netherlands, following centuries of floodplain reclamation, canalization and dyke construction, the Dutch Government recognized that infrastructure development alone was no longer sufficient to cope with increasing flood risks. Instead, Netherlands invested €2.3 billion to make "Room for the River" and re-established floodplains, resulting in reduced flood risk for 4 million people along its main rivers. Switzerland invests up to 150 million Swiss francs per year in forest management which provides protection against mountain hazards, such as rockfalls, snow avalanches and landslides – this investment is considered to be 5 to 10 times less expensive than the construction and maintenance of engineered measures such as avalanche barriers.

Ecosystem-based approaches for risk reduction are not only for developed countries, but also a practical option for developing countries.  Ecosystems do not necessarily replace built infrastructure, but they may provide a more affordable, accessible and durable option, with multiple, longer-lasting benefits.

There is vast global knowledge and experience in applying ecosystem-based approaches, but challenges remain in applying them in the context of disaster risk reduction and adaptation.

Disaster risk is driven by factors such as poverty, urbanization, poor land-use planning and ecosystem degradation, which are all developmental challenges. Environmentally-polluting economic activities, for instance oil spills in Ogoniland, cause irreversible ecosystems damage, destroy livelihoods, and thus increase the vulnerability of communities to all types of disasters. Disaster risk reduction is therefore essentially about ensuring sustainable development in hazard-prone areas. Yet, disaster risk reduction is often in direct competition with other development priorities.

There is a need to maximize shared priorities between the disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and sustainable development agendas, recognizing the important role of ecosystems in reducing risk and providing for human well-being. This integrated approach should be reinforced in the Rio+20 Conference, in the MDGs and the post-2015 sustainable development agenda, in the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) and the post-2015 disaster risk reduction framework, as well as in UNFCCC negotiations.

Many successful experiences in ecosystem-based approaches for risk reduction are implemented on a small-scale, either at pilot or project levels. Scaling up efforts at national or regional levels are necessary to achieve wider impact, as shown in the Netherlands, Swiss, Sahel and Ethiopian examples. Factoring environmental sustainability and risk reduction into public investments and development planning will achieve the necessary scale to tackle key drivers of risk, protect against disaster losses, and support social and economic development. A number of available ecosystem management instruments - such as integrated watershed management, coastal zone management, protected area management, drylands management and forest fire management - as well as environmental regulatory instruments - such as environmental impact assessments (EIAs) - could be applied to make sectoral development plans more sustainable and resilient.

Finally, strengthening national and local capacities remains a critical gap. A shift towards ecosystem-based risk reduction is possible through the adoption of national policies and legislation that provide the institutional and political mandate for implementing such integrated approaches. In some countries, appropriate policies and legislation are already in place, but the main problem lies in their enforcement and implementation. Technical capacity development and cross-sectoral institutional mechanisms are needed to implement integrated solutions across key development sectors, such as water, forestry and urban development. This means involving people with different technical expertise, for instance city engineers and land developers working together with ecologists and disaster management experts.

In conclusion, let us seize the opportunity, through ecosystems management, to chart a more sustainable and resilient development for our future.  Thank you for your attention.

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