Concept Note Series E-022. June 2015.
Disasters and the environment are interlinked in complex ways that can have significant impacts on development. This document explores the cyclical nature of the interlinkages between disasters and the environment, highlighting the interconnectedness of risk reduction, mitigation, preparedness, recovery, and resilience-building efforts.
Communities worldwide have been facing an increasing frequency and variety of disasters, which have had a number of direct and indirect causes as well as effects. One of the key cause-effect factors that has received considerable interest is the environment. While much attention has been paid to the negative effects of disaster events on the environment, much less attention has been focused on the implications of poor environmental management practices and ecological degradation, which aggravates a disaster's impact.
The discussion examines how environmental degradation, including climate change, can increase the frequency and intensity of natural hazards, which can in turn exacerbate vulnerabilities and undermine development gains. It also discusses how the impacts of disasters on the environment can lead to further environmental degradation, perpetuating a cycle of vulnerability and disaster risk. The document argues for the importance of addressing the root causes of environmental degradation and building long-term resilience to prevent and mitigate disaster impacts.
Overall, the document emphasizes the need for a comprehensive, multi-sectoral approach to disaster risk reduction and development that addresses the complex interlinkages between disasters and the environment.
Keywords: Disasters, Vulnerability, Risk Reduction, Mitigation, Preparedness, Recovery, Resilience, Environmental Degradation, Climate Change, Adaptation, Social Vulnerability
A number of threats to the environment, such as land degradation, deforestation, erosion etc. have had a number of impacts on recent disaster events. A quick observation of recent disasters from 1994 to 2000 show an increasing predominance of disasters that have their precedence in environmental causes, or impacts intensified by poor environmental management. Worldwide, the number of people affected by disasters, whether hydro-meteorological, geological or biological, and the economic loss resulting from the disasters have increased correspondingly. Disasters have particularly affected lower-income countries' GDP – for example, Hurricane Mitch caused more than US$ one billion in Nicaragua in 1998, which was more than 50 percent of its GDP.
Many scientists have argued the correlation between extreme weather events (such as typhoons, storms etc.) and global environmental change - particularly within the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) . Experts of IPCC and other institutions are increasingly linking the current trends of greater severity and occurrence of disasters to the rise in global mean temperatures, and associated changes in precipitation and wind velocities. These also appear to be influencing the occurrence of storms, drought and landslides.
A storm that struck Seychelles in September 2002 caused extensive economic damage to the islands of Mahe, Cousin and neighbouring islands, significantly affecting its fragile biodiversity - both flora and fauna. The Joint Environment Unit (2003) identified problems such as ground water contamination, clean-up of debris in an environmentally sound manner etc. as a result of the disaster.
Similarly, a rapid environmental assessment of Hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne that hit Haiti, Grenada and the Dominican Republic in September-October 2004, carried out by the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA), identified a number of environmental impacts including, for example, risks to ground and surface water in Grenada from garbage and destruction of vegetation, and exacerbation of pre-existing environmental degradation, etc. It concluded that action is needed in the longer term to fill major gaps in knowledge about environmental impacts of disasters.
While a strong case on the linkages between global climate change and natural disasters is yet to be built, there is clearer consensus on the effects of disasters on the environment, ecology and human settlements, and vice versa, environmental degradation factors that increase the impacts of disaster events. These effects also last far beyond the scope and timeframe of immediate humanitarian relief response activities.
To illustrate this point, Wisner et al. conclude that to reduce disaster risk (no loss of life, restricted damage or food security), and achieve safe conditions (protected environments, resilient communities, or preparedness), we will have to reduce pressures (capacitated local institutions and communities, and supportive macro development activities) by addressing the root causes (increased access to decision-making and resources, reduce systemic vulnerability).
Changing ecological conditions can themselves provoke emergencies, or aggravate disaster events, by placing concurrent stresses on the environment. Mitigating these stresses and their effects has become an important component in global efforts to ensure environmental security. This was clearly illustrated in the analysis of the 'Tokage' typhoon (Typhoon no. 23 of 2004) that struck Japan . Deforestation, forest management practices, or agriculture systems can intensify the negative environmental impacts of a storm or typhoon, leading to landslides, flooding, silting and ground/surface water contamination. This was also illustrated by the 2004 hurricane and storm tragedies in the Haiti, and in the Philippines.
It has to however, be accepted that not all disasters have negative impacts. For example, not all disasters result in significant environmental impacts - many earthquakes have only minor impacts on ecosystems. Some extreme climate events can have positive impacts on local environment - floods can help rejuvenate floodplain vegetation. Thus a 'disaster' may also have beneficial ecological consequences. However, these benefits tend to manifest themselves only months or years after the event. (e.g. rejuvenation of a forest years after a fire) or are not readily apparent (e.g. recharging of groundwater stocks after a flood).
We have only now come to understand these cyclical causes and impacts, and the realization that taking care of our natural resources and managing them wisely not only assures that future generations will be able to live in sustainable ways, but also reduces the risks that natural and man-made hazards pose to people living today. It becomes, therefore, important for us to see the cyclical linkages – of environmental degradation and their exacerbation of a disaster’s impacts, and of a disaster’s impacts on the environment.
But incorporating environmental concerns within disaster management has been an elusive objective. There are a number of causes for this situation, both as a result of a lack of awareness and also misplaced priorities. In low-income countries hardest hit by disasters, developmental priorities are still placed on health, job creation and income generation, education, etc. Environmental protection receives comparatively lower priority in national policies and development plans. With disaster management, much of the focus is on immediate humanitarian relief, for both pre-disaster preparedness, and for post-disaster response.
Administrative obstacles and entrenched attitudes also exist. Disaster management and environmental management are, in many cases, handled by different administrative sections. For example, in Japan, the environmental management section of a local government deals with disaster waste only, and feels that it has no other role to play. The disaster management section usually deals with immediate evacuation, search and rescue, and coordination of post-disaster activities. Long term rehabilitation and development are managed individually by different sections, with little, if any, coordination among them.
To stop this vicious cycle of environmental degradation and the frequency and impact of disasters, it will be important to bring all these priorities together, developmental, environmental and disasters, particularly for developing countries, in realizing that the positive synergies and externalities that can result from this process.
Emphasizing and reinforcing the centrality of environmental concerns in disaster management has become a critical priority now, requiring sound management of natural resources as a tool to prevent disasters and lessen their impacts on people, their homes and livelihoods.
Meteorological and hydrological events, such as typhoons, are hazards that cause heavy rain, flooding, high wind and sea surges. But the real damage also happens due to the vulnerability of the people who lie in its path. Post-disaster assessment of hurricanes and typhoons have clearly illustrated that proper management of the environment – its air, land, water, forests, and wastes, go a long way in reducing the risks and vulnerabilities associated with such disasters.
The study and analyses of disaster management has to therefore intrinsically incorporate environmental management issues in order to develop strategies and policies that will lead to better disaster mitigation and risk reduction practices.
The Hyogo Framework of Action, adopted at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction (WCDR) , clearly outlined these interlinkages between broader disaster risk management and vulnerabilities due to environmental degradation:
" ... Disaster risk is increasingly of global concern and its impact and actions in one region can have an impact on risks in another, and vice versa. This, compounded by increasing vulnerabilities … points to a future where disasters could increasingly threaten the world’s economy, and its population and the sustainable development of developing countries."
The starting point for reducing disaster risk and for promoting a culture of disaster resilience lies in the knowledge of the hazards and environmental vulnerabilities to disasters that most societies face, and of the ways in which these are changing in the short and long term, followed by action taken on the basis of that knowledge."
There is a clear need to raise awareness and develop strategies in emphasizing the positive externalities of good environmental practices for disaster management, and the overall cyclical interrelations between environments and disasters.
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