Wetland communities help reduce the tragic effects of natural hazards

Ramsar Convention on Wetlands

Local communities and indigenous peoples play a powerful, if often overlooked, role in maintaining our wetland ‘natural infrastructure’ and in disaster risk reduction.

Ninety percent of all natural hazards are water-related and take a tragic human toll. Since 1900, more than 11 million people have died as a consequence of drought alone. By 2050, loss of wetlands, rising populations in flood-susceptible areas, climate change, rising sea levels, and deforestation are set to increase the number of people vulnerable to floods to 2 billion.

Healthy wetlands, which include such iconic sites as the Everglades, Pantanal, Sundarbans and Okavango Delta, not only provide most of our freshwater, they also function as ‘natural infrastructure’ defending us from the often catastrophic effects of floods, droughts, storm surges and other natural hazards.

Harnessing traditional knowledge, cultural practices and innovations can contribute significantly to disaster risk reduction.

  • In Indonesia, Dayak communities in Borneo have used peatland swamp forests for generations for native tree crops and fisheries in traditional fish ponds called Beje. Peatlands and other carbon-rich wetlands hold twice the amount of carbon contained in all of the world’s forests. The Dayak communities’ sustainable use of peatlands helps maintain the wetland, reduces the likelihood of flooding and fires, and keeps carbon locked in the ground.

Peatland restoration by local community, blocking drainage channel

If these peatlands were to be drained and converted, such benefits would be lost and these huge natural carbon stores would become greenhouse gas sources. In support of these communities, Wetlands International, a partner of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, has established a fund for community-based peatland restoration initiatives called the Indonesian Peatlands Partnership Fund (IPPF).

  • Another example of a community-based approach to disaster risk reduction is found in Senegal. To restore the Saloum Delta Ramsar Site, local communities and organizations have worked together to re-plant mangroves. The restoration of the Saloum Delta not only helps control natural hazards such as flooding, it also protects the area against coastal erosion and provides freshwater to local communities and their livestock through-out the year. This community-based mangrove restoration project, supported by the Livelihoods Carbon Fund with the NGO Océanium, is the largest in the world, with 100 million mangrove trees planted in an area covering 10,000 hectares.  It won the Ramsar Award for Innovation in 2015.
  • In the Philippines in Pangasinan, several villages have adopted an early warning system for floods that combines indigenous and scientific knowledge. The villages use scientific monitoring of river flows to predict flooding, and then launch flood warnings by striking a traditional bamboo musical instrument called the ‘kanungkong’. During heavy flooding in 2007, this innovative hybrid system allowed the community to prepare and respond with sufficient time.

Another example of the value of traditional environmental knowledge as an early warning system is the tsunami legend of the Moken (also known as ‘sea gypsies’), which speaks of a ‘wave that eats people’ and identifies its signs, such as receding sea levels and the sudden quiet of insects. The Moken, who live in the Andaman Sea, were able to read the signs of the 2004 Asian Tsunami thanks to this knowledge and save themselves and several tourists who happened to be in the area. At the time, this story was broadcast on international news channels.

As climate change worsens, water-related hazards such as floods, droughts and storm surges are set to increase in both frequency and intensity. These hazards disproportionally affect poor populations, and the international community should and is endeavoring to put in place effective measures to combat climate change and its effects.

In the long run, reducing the tragic toll of water-related hazards, which constitute 90% of all natural hazards, requires an integrated approach – one which addresses not only wetland conservation and restoration, but also the implementation of effective climate change solutions and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. The traditional knowledge, cultural practices, and innovations of local communities and indigenous peoples constitute a valuable ‘living repertoire’ of solutions. This ‘living repertoire’ can play a powerful role in successful strategies to prevent, reduce and cope with natural hazards.

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