WWF's Anita van Breda on Uncommon Alliances

Working together as we head into an uncertain future

  • Anita Van Breda portrait

    Anita van Breda has a knack for starting from scratch. As a master’s candidate at Yale, she initiated the first Center for Coastal and Watershed Systems for the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. And when she saw the need for WWF to build relationships with humanitarian aid organizations to reduce disaster risk and vulnerability, she stepped up to start WWF’s humanitarian partnership work. As director of disaster response and risk reduction, van Breda works with local and global humanitarian aid agencies to ensure that WWF’s conservation work is applied to disaster recovery and reconstruction in areas impacted by crisis.

Some might say it's unusual, surprising even, for a conservation organization like WWF to be involved in disaster response and risk reduction. But over the years, we've come to realize that by applying environmental conservation practices to humanitarian efforts after a disaster, we can "build back safer," improving resilience—the ability to endure and recover from disaster—for both people and the environment.

For me, that realization happened after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. At the time, I was working on fisheries and aquaculture in Asia, and it never occurred to me that disaster response was a conservation issue. But after the tsunami hit, we learned of one agency that was going to rebuild fisheries using outdated—and potentially environmentally destructive—methods.

It got us wondering: would a humanitarian group be interested in using WWF's approach to sustainability and improving coastal livelihoods as part of the post-tsunami rebuilding effort?

So we walked down the street to the office of the American Red Cross and engaged in a unique conversation. They were in the process of funding several fisheries and aquaculture livelihood initiatives and suggested we work together—each bringing our unique strengths and expertise to the table—to minimize the environmental impact while maximizing the outcomes for people. We expanded from that initial focus to include shelter, water and sanitation, and disaster risk reduction—and built a five-year partnership across four countries. Our work together resulted in the Green Recovery and Reconstruction Training Toolkit, which shares what we learned and the tools we developed to guide environmentally responsible rebuilding after a disaster. The toolkit has now been used in several countries, including Guatemala, Pakistan and Nepal—where existing relationships are helping WWF engage on post-earthquake reconstruction plans.

Unconventional alliances like these are exciting. Although challenging, bringing together diverse skill sets and perspectives adds strength to every effort. For the same reason, WWF is also committed to engaging universities and other academic partners to help us get the next generation of environmental and humanitarian practitioners involved. Then those students bring that mindset to their future workplaces, and you slowly start to see the system change.

Historically, the environmental and humanitarian sectors have each done their work in isolation. But now we're meeting each other in the field more and more. There are disaster victims and refugees in places where WWF is working and engaged. And humanitarian agencies that are working with disaster victims realize a healthy environment is critical to a healthy community. That's going to be more of a reality in the future, as climate change causes increasingly unpredictable and intense weather extremes. So it's in the interest of both our sectors to learn to work successfully together in advance of a crisis.

Getting ahead of the next crisis is what our new Flood Risk Reduction: Natural and Nature-Based Techniques manual is all about; it's an opportunity to focus on reducing disaster risk and building resilience. For this effort, we've partnered with USAID's Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance, which is often involved with flood issues in developing countries.

In the past, the response to floods has typically been, "Let's build walls to try to reduce our risks." But engineering alone has limitations. Globally, we are seeing better management practices that integrate both hard and soft engineering. In the Netherlands, they are removing channels that straighten and control the river to let it flow more naturally, with adjacent marshland or wetlands that can absorb the increased flooding scientists anticipate. Our flood manual pulls together successful examples and methodologies to help communities use ecosystems and nature-based techniques to adapt to risks and prepare for extreme events.

Today we're looking into the future and recognizing that there are many unknowns about how the world is going to change and about what our best response to change will be. So we have to continually learn, adapt and improve as we go. Embrace the unknown and work to move forward.

That's what gets me up in the morning. We're trying to face that uncertainty head-on, make the future less scary, include the environment in how we prepare, and provide as many options and possibilities as we can for a better future.

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