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UNEP: How ecosystems protect communities against natural hazards

Source(s):  United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

UNEP marks International Day for Disaster Reduction

- Haiti, one of the poorest and most environmentally degraded countries in the western hemisphere, is one of the many examples in recent times of the crucial role played by ecosystems in reducing disaster risk. Prior to the earthquake in January 2010 which devastated the country, environmental degradation was already a critical challenge, as extensively degraded catchments made Haiti's rural and urban population vulnerable to floods, landslides and severe soil erosion. From August to September 2008, four major storms ravaged Haiti, triggering mudslides and flash floods, leaving thousands homeless, killing nearly 800 people and destroying 60% of the country's harvest.

Neighbouring Cuba and the Dominican Republic were also affected but to a significantly lesser degree than Haiti. Did deforestation play a role in multiplying the devastating impact of disasters in Haiti?

With less than 2% tree cover and high rates of deforestation driven primarily by poverty, Haiti has become extremely vulnerable to floods and landslides during heavy rainfall. Unfortunately, 2008 was not a one-off event. In 2004 tropical storm Jeanne killed an estimated 3,000 people as a result of mudslides and floods coming down exposed mountains. But these lessons are not confined to Haiti alone; flash floods linked to forest degradation are a recurring experience in countries like the Philippines and most recently Mexico and are stark reminders of how environmental degradation can contribute to disaster statistics.

In the past decade alone, an estimated 2.5 million people globally were affected by natural hazards, 97% of whom were impacted by climate-related and hydro-meteorological disasters.

Greater recognition of the vital role of well-managed forests and watersheds in reducing the risks of disasters will help make urban and rural populations more resilient to floods, landslides and other natural hazards, was the theme of the high-level forum convened in Geneva, Switzerland today by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Partnership for Environment and Disaster Risk Reduction (PEDRR) to mark the International Day for Disaster Reduction.

The audience heard how forests and watersheds provide critical services to both rural and urban communities, including protection against natural hazards and critical support to local livelihoods and economies. Yet these multiple forest services, particularly for natural hazard regulation, continue to be under-valued, resulting in missed opportunities to maximize their potential for disaster prevention and mitigation.

Around the world, in countries such as Bolivia's Altiplano region, China, Switzerland and Japan, communities and governments are giving increased recognition to the value of forests for mitigating against floods, avalanches, rockfall and soil erosion while providing timber and non-timber products to support livelihoods.

The International Day, held annually on 13 October, aims to raise awareness on the impacts of disasters globally, and it originated within the framework of the World Disaster Reduction Campaign, initiated in 2008.

The roundtable, attended by members of the development community and the general public, provided a key opportunity to raise awareness of the environmental drivers of disaster risk and discuss the challenges faced by communities and countries in reducing disaster risk and recommendations to guide future actions. It was opened by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, Margareta Wahlström, and the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Costa Rica to the United Nations of Geneva, His Excellency Manuel B. Dengo.

The International Day was also marked this year at the Shanghai Expo with a panel discussion around the theme "The City" which examined ways of building urban centers resilient to natural hazards and included the Assistant Mayor of Chendgu, Mao Zhixiong; the Editor-in-Chief of China Business Times, Li Zhong Chun, and the Chief of UNEP's Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch, Henrik Slotte, as well as representatives from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN ISDR).

More information

Partnership for Environment and Disaster Risk Reduction

PEDRR is a global partnership comprised of UN agencies, international and regional NGOs as well as specialist institutes that collectively aim to influence policy and to improve and coordinate efforts in environmental management and ecosystems-based approaches for sustainable livelihoods and the reduction of disaster risks, including climate-related risks. It also works in collaboration with existing networks and partnerships, such as the Disaster and Environment Working Group in Asia (DEWGA).

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  • Publication date 13 Oct 2010

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