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In wake of ‘natural’ disasters, not reducing biodiversity loss is a big missed opportunity

Nature based solutions to natural hazard destructions appears to be economically more beneficial than any other solution, says author Roger S. Pulwarty.

This article was originally published in Mongabay Magazine.

  • Following the progress of the COP15 biodiversity summit, it’s time to come together to fully leverage the power of nature to build a prosperous, disaster-resilient future, a new op-ed argues.
  • “Working with – and making full use of – the power of nature, and taking advantage of much existing knowledge, would prove a major step forward,” writes a NOAA senior scientist.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay or NOAA.

Floods, heatwaves, droughts, and wildfires – a changing climate is bringing with it ever more frequent and destructive so-called “natural” disasters, often impacting the most vulnerable areas and communities of the world.

Amidst these rising impacts, the role of nature is too often framed as “creating” such events. Yet, as both science and traditional knowledge attest, nature is not only our best defense against climate-related hazards, it is also a bountiful source of benefits and advantages for reducing and managing risks – but only if we repay it with nature-positive actions.

The recent floods in Pakistan affected more than 33 million people, yet the economic damages, estimated to total roughly US$40 billion, pale in comparison to the potential benefits that nature-based solutions could unlock. These benefits are not limited to reducing disaster risk, but also generate a range of new opportunities for economies, livelihoods, and human wellbeing.

Capybaras, Colombia. Image by Rhett Butler for Mongabay
Capybaras in Colombia. Image by Rhett Butler for Mongabay.

Conserving mangrove forests, for example, could help prevent $80 billion in damages and protect some 18 million people from coastal flooding – which will become more frequent due to sea-level rise. Moreover, mangroves can provide 10 times such savings from disasters avoided through the benefits and opportunities they generate for communities as a natural buffer, and in generating more sustained and resilient well-being.

That’s why, following the progress made at the COP15 biodiversity summit, countries must come together to fully leverage the power of nature, through both finance and nature-based solutions, to build a prosperous, disaster-resilient future.

In the first instance, countries should prioritize effective community-led nature-based solutions. Local and Indigenous communities are often the best-placed stewards of their natural environment and should be supported in implementing such solutions to overcome local climate adaptation and disaster risk challenges.

Damselfish on the coral reef in Komodo National Park in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler.
Fish and coral in Komodo National Park in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

For instance, Costa Rica has implemented innovative approaches in which, after decades of deforestation, communities have helped improve forest cover to more than 50 percent of the nation, and with almost 25 percent of the country’s land in parks and reserves. This not only preserves natural biodiversity and its role in climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction, but also unlocks economic opportunities which can only be sustained by nature.

Secondly, countries should aim to complement nature-based approaches with multi-hazard early warning systems to maximize their effectiveness for proactive risk reduction. Post-event assessments show that early warning systems played a vital role in saving lives and protecting livelihoods in the Caribbean during the 2013-16 drought and the 2017 hurricane seasons.

However, full information systems could also monitor the depletion of natural resources before dangerous thresholds are reached, such as a country’s forest cover percentage and land degradation in exposed regions and communities. By creating and deploying new indicators to guide the protection of natural buffers that reduce risks and ward off disasters, we can help ensure the many benefits nature can provide for people as well as wildlife and ecosystems while safeguarding these for the future.

Finally, in supporting a more disaster-resilient world, countries must aim to defragment and align finance to support risk reduction goals. Typically, traditional thinking places disaster risk reduction as an add-on to climate adaptation. However, successful adaptation – and many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – will be impossible to achieve without greater capabilities for disaster risk reduction being supported across multiple scales.

A network intertwining mangrove roots. Image courtesy of Corey Robinson/National Geographic.
“Conserving mangrove forests…could help prevent $80 billion in damages and protect some 18 million people from coastal flooding.” Image courtesy of Corey Robinson/National Geographic.

Examples from agencies such as the United Nation’s Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Finance Initiative, the Global Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR, assessments for which the writer has served as a convening lead author), show that opportunities for aligning innovative finance, such as micro-insurance and resilience-based bonds, occur across global to regional, national, and local scales.

In leveraging existing resources to realize the benefits of functioning environmental systems, partnerships across government, the private sector and communities should also seek to make the destruction of ecosystems, the externalization of risks, and an overall lack of accountability for risk creation more transparent, less focused on short-term profits, and de-incentivized.

In an increasingly interconnected world, public-private and civil society partnerships need to be scaled up beyond adaptation projects to support more equitable and adaptive systems across communities and across nations.

While risks can never be totally eliminated, working with – and making full use of – the power of nature, and taking advantage of much existing knowledge, would prove a major step forward. In doing so, reversing the depletion of biodiversity will allow the world and its communities to reap the benefits of its most powerful ally in the fight against climate change and climate-related disasters, and help reduce the likelihood of new risks emerging.

Roger S. Pulwarty is Co-chair of the International Science Council Working Group Report on the UNDRR Sendai Mid-Term Review and has served as a convening lead author on UNDRR and IPCC assessments. He is a Senior Scientist in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This op-ed does not claim to represent the views of NOAA.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: A discussion of the ecosystem benefits of mangrove restoration and the effectiveness of nature based solutions to climate change, listen here

Image: Golden snub-nosed monkeys are listed as an endangered species by the IUCN. Photo by Jack Hynes via Wikimedia Commons.

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