Nature-based Solutions: protecting nature to protect people

Natural disaster goes hand-in-hand with human and environmental loss and suffering. Nature-based Solutions mitigate some of the most significant impacts.

Protecting and restoring forests to slow water runoff and reduce flooding. Expanding green spaces around cities to mitigate heat stress. Preventing loss of life from storm surges and protecting people’s homes by restoring reefs and mangrove marshes. These are all examples of Nature-based Solutions, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and WWF are partnering to drive a step-change to prioritize their implementation in the fight against climate change and its impacts.

Nature-based Solutions could reduce the impact of climate and weather-related disasters and events by at least 26%, and save billions in disaster relief

Together, the IFRC/WWF will build awareness and scale-up solutions that look to nature to protect the world’s most at-risk populations and landscapes, build resilience, and potentially reduce the impacts of climate and weather-related disasters and events by at least 26%. By providing developing countries with protection against the economic cost of climate change, Nature-based Solutions could save approximately US$104 billion in 2030 and US$393 billion in 2050.

In supporting Nature-based Solutions, the IFRC and WWF have clear overlap. The WWF works to help local communities conserve the natural resources they depend upon; transform markets and policies toward sustainability; and protect and restore species and their habitats. The IFRC carries out relief operations to assist victims of disasters, and combine this with development work to strengthen the capacities of its member National Societies. The new partnership will leverage the mandate and expertise of each organisation to increase awareness and action around Nature-based Solutions.

Through a new report developed by Dalberg, the partnership urges governments, communities, donors, practitioners, and the private sector to scale-up and accelerate the implementation of Nature-based solutions specifically in their climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction planning.

The report explores the untapped potential of Nature-based Solutions and sets out the enabling conditions for, and obstacles to, successful initiatives; provides case studies where Nature-based Solutions are already in place; and outlines the work that the IFRC and WWF are doing in this area, along with key lessons to guide practitioners and policymakers.

In the Face of More Hazards, the Need for Action To Ensure Fewer Disasters

Without action to reduce exposure and vulnerability, climate and weather-related disasters and events are expected to cause unprecedented human, economic and environmental losses in the face of more frequent and intense hazards in coming decades. In the last 20 years alone, climate and weather-related disasters have increased by 40%.

The people who suffer most from climate and weather-related disasters are typically the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.

From 1970 to 2019, 91% of deaths from sudden-onset climate, weather, and water related disasters – such as flooding and mudslides – occurred in developing economies and by 2050 at least 570 cities and 800 million people are projected to be exposed to rising seas and storm surges.

Due to their higher vulnerability and lower adaptive capacity, low-income countries also suffer more from slow-onset climate-related events like increasing temperatures, desertification and sea level rise. According to estimates, 90% of low-income countries face a high or very high risk of loss and damage due to slow-onset events while only 5% of high-income countries face such risks.

This greater impact is driven by the higher share of impoverished populations in vulnerable urban zones, weak infrastructure, lack of basic facilities, limited government capacity, and high levels of climate-sensitive livelihoods, such as smallholder farmers.

These factors increase both exposure and vulnerability to disaster impacts, and can also affect people’s capacity to respond to disasters including their ability to anticipate, prevent and mitigate risks, which in turn can lead to disparities in the outcomes of disasters. Between 2010-2020, human mortality from floods, droughts and storms was 15 times higher in highly vulnerable regions, compared to regions with very low vulnerability.

Furthermore, the annual cost of sudden-onset-disaster assistance is predicted to increase dramatically as the population in need of humanitarian assistance as a result of floods, storms and droughts alone increases to an estimated 150 million. It will be challenging to deploy existing solutions at the pace and scale needed to protect growing and increasingly vulnerable populations in a warming climate.

The Promise of Nature-based Solutions

In contrast to traditionally engineered hazard solutions, such as the construction of sea walls, which often provide only a single benefit of physical protection from the impact, Nature-based Solutions work in ways that sustainably manage and use natural features and processes to tackle socio-environmental challenges.

One example is the protection or restoration of forests and wetlands in catchments that secure and regulate water supplies, protect communities and infrastructure from floods, soil erosion and landslides, and support production of forest products.

They are demonstrated to be cost-effective and their wide-reaching benefits include contributing to food and water security, climate change mitigation, health improvements, protection of nature, and job creation.

In the case of the 2004 tsunami that hit the coastal Tamil Nadu region in India, mangroves and Casuarina plantations reduced the force of tsunami-induced waves, and protected shorelines from damage. Villages behind mangroves were protected, but those unshielded by vegetation suffered extensive damage. This corroborates findings in lab experiments that 30 trees per 100 square meters can reduce the maximum flow of a tsunami by more than 90%.

Similarly, estimates show that coral reefs reduce wave energy under routine and storm conditions by more than 75%, and as a result reduce the risk of coastal erosion and flooding during storms. In Jamaica, approximately 60% of shoreline is effectively protected by coral reefs which act as a natural defense against the increasingly destructive force of tropical storms, thus protecting coastal communities, tourist hotels and destinations.

Since evidence shows that nature can regulate and mitigate hazards, control exposure, and reduce vulnerability, implementing Nature-based Solutions now at scale has the potential to protect society from the future economic costs of climate change loss and damage. They could also provide up to 37% of the solutions needed to meet emissions targets under the Paris climate agreement, in a cost-effective way.

But even though there is a strong evidence base of successful Nature-based Solutions, pilot projects, and academic studies outlining their potential, many remain small-scale and their full potential has not been realized due to funding gaps, a lack of translating policies into practice, and implementation challenges.

Furthermore, if Nature-based Solutions are to provide the promised savings in economic cost and humanitarian assistance from disasters and deliver on their many other benefits, implementation at scale will need to start immediately, before climate change diminishes nature’s protective qualities.

The continued rise in global temperature presents an existential threat to the protective services of nature – and to realizing the full potential of Nature-based Solutions. Among the many services and benefits ecosystems provide are food, water, timber, air purification, soil formation, and pollination. But human activities are destroying biodiversity and altering the capacity of healthy ecosystems to deliver their wide range of goods and services. If the balance tips, there is no turning back.

Recommendations for Implementing Nature-based Solutions.

People are better equipped than ever before to save lives during disasters and events. The global response to Covid-19 has shown that nations around the world are capable of mobilizing, taking unprecedented actions, and finding the resources necessary to deal with a threat.

This same energy and ambition must be applied to reduce the impacts of climate and weather-related disasters and events, including efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to address climate change and prevent growth in climate and weather-related hazards.

Countries, particularly the largest emitters, must make transformational changes to their energy, agricultural, and transport sectors to stop temperatures from continuing to rise, and in order to leverage the potential of Nature-based Solutions, the following actions need to be taken:

  • Support development of a stronger evidence base and coordinate research efforts to close the knowledge gap, understanding what constitutes successful and sustainable Nature-based Solutions, how they can reduce climate change and weather-related disasters, and how climate change affects their potential,
  • Examine limitations of specific Nature-based Solutions measures based on each project context,
  • Close capacity gaps, at all levels,
  • Close the funding gap, including exploring private-sector innovations beyond carbon markets to support Nature-based Solutions financing for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation,
  • Align and harmonize international and national policy, planning and legal frameworks on climate change, development, environment, and disasters to promote harmonized approaches to resilience and risk reduction across sectors and ministries/departments,
  • Promote models of engaging local communities and Indigenous Peoples in planning and implementing Nature-based Solutions as a standard,
  • Recognize that the potential of Nature-based Solutions has limitations and therefore implement them as part of a package of disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, and climate change mitigation interventions.

The full report “Working with Nature to Protect People: How Nature-based Solutions Reduce Climate Change and Weather-Related Disasters” can be downloaded here.

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