The role of environment in the HFA2


The role of environment in the HFA2

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Date: 13th August 2014
Author: CDKN Global
Type: Feature
Tags: disaster risk reduction, disaster risk reduction, Sendai Framework, UNISDR

Marisol Estrella of the United Nations Environment Programme outlines how environmental solutions play a role in disaster risk reduction.

This blog is part of CDKN’s blog series: ‘Rethinking a new global agreement for disaster risk reduction’  which invites contributors to outline their ideas for a better post-2015 disaster risk management agreement. If you would like to contribute, please contact Amy Kirbyshire.

Environment as a solution – not just a problem – in DRR

When we think about disasters and the environment, what most often comes to mind?  Perhaps the easiest to visualise are the environmental impacts of disasters: contaminated drinking water sources, salinisation and destruction of agricultural fields, oil spills threatening coastal and marine habitats, and uprooting of trees. On the flipside, we readily appreciate environmental drivers of disasters: deforestation giving rise to flash floods and landslides, groundwater over-abstraction to drought, expansion of urban settlements to heat waves. Environmental problems are therefore generally understood as drivers of risk that needs to be tackled as part of disaster management and disaster risk reduction (DRR).

Yet it is possible to envision the role of environment in DRR in a different way – as a solution, not just as a problem. The environment and ecosystems in particular, such as forests, mangroves, wetlands, sand dunes and reefs have important functions that can influence all three components of the disaster risk equation (expressed as Disaster risk = Hazard x Exposure x Vulnerability). Few DRR measures can claim the same.

Increasingly, there are examples to support this view. In Orissa, India, healthy wetlands have helped to regulate flood waters while sustaining a range of diversified livelihoods (fishing, farming) which enable people to better adapt to flooding events. After Typhoon Yolanda devastated coastal areas in the Philippines, the Philippine government pledged PhP 1 billion towards mangrove reforestation activities, recognising the role of mangroves as coastal “bioshields” or natural buffers against storm surge impacts. In Negril, Jamaica, UNEP found that coral reefs and see grass habitats provide up to 40% of coastal protection against beach erosion and storm surges. Coastal “bioshields” have long been established in Sri Lanka, India, Vietnam and Bangladesh as part of coastal zone management. Mountain forests in Switzerland and other Alpine countries are actively managed as “protection forests” to prevent avalanches and rock fall. After Hurricane Sandy, the Governor of New York, USA set up a US$400 million fund to buy homes in Sandy-affected areas to create coastal buffer zones.  European countries affected by severe flooding in recent years, including the UK, Netherlands, Belgium and Germany have made significant policy shifts to “make space for water” to protect people from flooding, restore floodplains, apply ecosystems-based measures.

In DRR, technological solutions – such as dykes, sea walls or dams - have dominated the menu of options in disaster management. While engineered measures clearly have advantages, they have down-sides too: they are often costly to construct and maintain, and only deliver benefits when a hazard actually strikes. Like ecosystems, engineered solutions also have thresholds and fail – and when they fail, they fail catastrophically. Meanwhile ecosystem-based measures are less costly and provide multiple benefits with or without a disaster (e.g. supporting livelihoods; providing food, water, and fuel; supporting biodiversity; sequestering carbon).

While environmental drivers and impacts of disasters are now fairly well-acknowledged amongst DRR actors, promoting environmental solutions for DRR is not yet considered “mainstream” or standard DRR practice. But doing so offers untapped potential for expanding the menu of DRR options available to countries and communities.

DRR, environment and the HFA

In the HFA, environment is addressed primarily under Priority 4: Reduce the underlying risk factors, which in 2005 was already a major step forward in recognising the environmental dimensions of disaster risk.  But placing environment under Priority 4 limits the potential role the environmental sector can play in DRR.

The HFA does provide scope for expanding the role of environment. The agreement identifies “key activities” for incorporating DRR into the environment sector, encouraging “the sustainable use and management of ecosystems” and “implementation of integrated environmental and natural resource management approaches that incorporate disaster risk reduction”.  However, there is no coherence with what is being measured under Priority 4 in the self-assessment tool used by countries to report on progress against HFA priorities (the HFA Monitor). Moreover, greater emphasis is placed on integrating DRR into the environment sector, neglecting the potential for promoting environmental measures as part of DRR strategies.

The 2010 Mid-term Review of the HFA highlighted that least implementation progress was made in Priority 4; it is therefore fair to say that environment did not receive adequate attention in HFA implementation. But the main problem, I would argue, is that our understanding of environment remains “trapped” under Priority 4, which narrows the scope and under-estimates its potential role in DRR.  What is the best way, then, of framing the role of environment in the next post-2015 global disasters framework?

Mainstreaming environment in the HFA2  

There are two ways to ensure that the role of environment is broadened and more systematically tackled in HFA2:  first, recognizing environment as a cross-cutting DRR issue and, second, defining environment as a key measure in building resilience to disasters.

Environment as a cross-cutting DRR issue

The current HFA has a set of cross-cutting themes – but environment is not one of them. Given the many inter-linkages between environment and disasters, environmental dimensions of disaster risk can only be effectively tackled if environment is recognized as a cross-cutting DRR issue in the new framework.

Mainstreaming environment within each priority area under the current HFA can be easily visualised. For instance, the importance of environmental protection and ecosystem management should be recognised in national DRR policies and strategies (HFA Priority 1).  Environmental changes, including environmental degradation and climate change, need to be integrated as part of disaster risk assessments as well as early warning and monitoring (HFA Priority 2). Raising awareness of environment and disaster linkages should be part of DRR education and capacity building (HFA Priority 3). Disaster preparedness should include preparedness for environmental emergencies (such as oil spills or wild fires) that pose public health risks, and include measures that mitigate environmental impacts of disasters and disaster response to ensure the sustainable, long-term recovery of affected communities (HFA Priority 5).

For environmental actors in DRR – including Ministries of Environment and other national and international institutions – to play a stronger role in the implementation of the next HFA, they require a DRR policy and implementation framework that clearly articulates the importance and role of environment across DRR priorities.

Environment as a key component in building resilience to disasters

Presently, discussions on building resilience in the context of HFA2 remain focused on social and economic resilience. I would argue that resilience to disasters is fundamentally underpinned by maintaining healthy, well-managed ecosystems.

The potential role of ecosystem-based measures in DRR is now well-documented, gaining increased coverage since 2004’s South Asian Tsunami. The Africa Regional Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction in May 2014 strongly called for the application of ecosystem-based solutions and reversed land degradation for DRR, which demonstrates growing demand for greater emphasis on the role of the environment in HFA2.

There is a need, through HFA2, to recognise the role of environment and ecosystems as a key component of DRR strategies, and to broaden our understanding of resilience to disasters to include environmental resilience.  For example, measurement of resilience could include a country’s total natural resources stock – its “natural capital” – to account for the DRR services provided by ecosystems. Measurement of resilience could include the hazard mitigation functions of ecosystems, for instance the percentage of coastal population and infrastructure sheltered behind coastal and marine ecosystems, or the percentage of urban green areas to mitigate flooding and heatwaves. Measurement of resilience could also capture critical ecosystem services that support post-disaster recovery, for instance river and ground water quality, given that communities often rely on these untreated water sources in post-disaster situations when drinking water supplies are cut off.

I am not advocating for ecosystems-based measures as a panacea nor as a stand-alone DRR solution. Other DRR measures are still critical, especially early warning, emergency preparedness, improved building codes and standards, and risk-sensitive land-use planning. But ecosystems and ecosystem-based measures need to be considered in the menu of effective DRR solutions for building resilience.


Occasionally, CDKN provides guest bloggers from around the world with the opportunity to share their views on climate compatible development. Such views do not necessarily represent the views of CDKN or its alliance partners. 

Image: Mangroves, courtesy Nick Leonard,

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