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Impacts from Extreme Weather Events Made Worse Due to Lack of Conservation, Report Finds

New WWF Report Says Environmental Protection is Vital in Reducing the Severity of Natural Disaster Effects on Communities

WASHINGTON –  Environmental degradation is a key factor in turning extreme weather events and natural hazards, like floods, earthquakes, cyclones, forest fires and hurricanes into catastrophic natural disasters, according to a new report from World Wildlife Fund.  In the wake of a series of recent devastating events, like the flooding in the Midwest, the massive earthquake in China and the typhoon in the Philippines, among others, this report illustrates how natural resource protection could have helped to mitigate the effects of these disasters and highlights the potential for conservation now to help alleviate impacts from future episodes.

The report, Natural Security: Protected Areas and Hazard Mitigation, prepared with environmental research group Equilibrium, examines the impacts of past disasters similar to those currently impacting millions of people worldwide, like floods in Bangladesh, Mozambique and Europe, forest fires in Portugal, an earthquake in Pakistan, tsunamis in the Indian Ocean and Hurricane Katrina in the United States.  It further explores the increasing number and severity of natural disasters and reviews how environmental degradation is contributing to this trend.

The World Bank estimates that more than 3.4 billion people, or more than half of the world’s population, are exposed to at least one natural hazard and according to the report, over the past 50 years the severity of impacts from disasters has increased, due in part to the loss of healthy ecosystems in the regions affected.

“The 21st century has seen the impacts of some truly horrific and record-breaking natural disasters. The unfortunate reality is that we put ourselves at greater risk of being impacted by disasters when we destroy the planet’s natural protective systems, such as mangroves, freshwater wetlands, barrier islands, and upland forests,” said Jonathan Randall senior program officer for WWF’s Humanitarian Partnerships program and co-author of Natural Security. “The good news is that governments and aid agencies have the chance to make communities more secure and more resilient by making conservation part of disaster risk reduction plans.” 

The report shows that unchecked development of the Louisiana coast has wiped out natural barriers thereby exacerbating disasters, like Hurricane Katrina. Wave energy in the Seychelles islands north of Madagascar has doubled as a result of reef destruction and sea level rise, and a continued increase is predicted over the next decade. The loss of 70 percent of floodplains in the Danube River in Eastern Europe is contributing to an increase in the frequency and severity of floods. Changes in vegetation and land use are shown to alter natural fire regimes and increase devastation from wildfires.

“While large-scale disasters cannot be entirely avoided, we can mitigate the devastating impact of disasters through better ecosystem management, including the establishment of protected areas,” said Randall. “By investing in environmental management you are investing in disaster risk reduction and protection of communities overall.”   

In one success story outlined in the report, the investment of $1.1 million in mangrove replanting saved some Vietnamese communities an estimated $7.3 million a year. During typhoon Wukong in 2000, the area protected by mangroves remained relatively unharmed, while neighboring provinces void of mangrove forest suffered significant loss of life and property. Management of Swiss forests are shown to provide protective services valued at up to $3.5 billion per year, mainly for their protective functions in reducing avalanches, landslides and flooding.  Traditional cultural ecosystems, like agroforestry systems, terraced crop-growing and fruit tree forests in arid lands have an important role in mitigating extreme weather events as well.

In addition to working with governments to create suitable protected areas for natural hazard protection, WWF has also partnered with humanitarian aid agencies to ensure reconstruction efforts are done sustainably.  After a disaster occurs, the recovery and reconstruction effort can place serious demands on already depleted natural resources for building materials and water systems.  WWF is working with organizations, like the American Red Cross and CARE, to help green recovery efforts and break disaster-affected communities out of the disaster cycle to ensure the long-term availability of natural resources that communities depend on for their livelihoods.

 Notes to editors: