Can ecosystems protect populations? New evidence published in Nature Sustainability

While it is generally assumed that ecosystems, such as mangroves, coral reefs or sand dunes, play an important role in reducing risks from hazard events, there are few comprehensive studies that gather scientific evidence on the services these ecosystems provide, and the functions they fulfill for disaster risk reduction. The newly published article “Scientific evidence for ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction” in Nature Sustainability addresses this knowledge gap. 28 experts from different disciplines, including 6 authors from UNU-EHS, joined forces for a review of 529 English-language peer-reviewed articles published between 2000 and 2019 on topics related to ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction (Eco-DRR).

The lead research question of the paper is: Can green solutions protect populations? Scientists were able to pinpoint what could have been the start of this important discussion. After the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, scientists, governments and non-profit organizations were trying to find ways to prevent these types of disasters in the future. Anecdotal evidence from the field showed that mangroves, coral reefs and sand dunes were able to reduce the intensity of the waves in some coastal areas. This was the beginning of what we now know as Eco-DRR. While it was a starting point, evidence needed to still be mapped out to substantiate the assumption that healthy ecosystems can provide protection against certain types of hazards in coastal, mountainous, urban and other areas.

The authors of the paper conclude that many types of ecosystems can be utilized in different and sustainable ways to reduce disaster risk, but more information is needed to fill some important research gaps. For example, most of the research was conducted in North America and Europe, leaving several questions to be answered regarding the role of Eco-DRR in the Global South. The authors made it clear that more research is required, that this is just the start of a long and interesting journey. UNU-EHS have been and will be a part of this journey, working on the relationship between ecosystems and disaster risk reduction, from research projects on salinity levels in Viet Nam to integrating ecosystem-based approaches into managing flood risk or reducing urban heat islands.

Read the Nature Sustainability paper here and the blog post about the paper here.