International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction: “How is the ongoing loss of wetlands linked to people leaving their homes and land?”

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How are wetlands connected to conflict and out-migration? This is a relevant question on this year’s International Day for Disaster Reduction, which focuses on disaster-related displacement and what can be done to make homes and communities more resilient to disasters.

The “Eco-DRR” approach, which promotes the sustainable management, conservation and restoration of ecosystems to reduce disaster risks, is increasingly recognized. Yet, the value of wetlands in countering disasters is seldom understood, and they are too rarely considered in disaster risk reduction policies and programmes.

Take Lake Chad, on the edge of the Sahara Desert. It has lost 95% of its surface area since the early 1970s due to frequent and prolonged droughts and more recently due to irrigation projects extracting water from the rivers that feed the lake. As a result nine million farmers, fishers and herders have faced water shortages, loss of livelihoods and increasing poverty.

As natural buffers, wetlands can help reduce the impact of disasters by collecting and holding water during floods, releasing water to reduce droughts and protecting against coastal storm surges. Wetlands in a healthy state can also help communities recover from disasters and help mitigate further climate change.  Yet wetlands continue to be degraded. More than 64% of the world’s wetlands have been lost since 1900, and degradation continues at alarming rates around the world.

“90% of disasters are water related, many of them the result of extreme weather. It is possible to greatly reduce the impact of weather related disasters if we recognize the important role of wetlands and adopt policies and strategies that conserve and restore these important ecosystems,” said Martha Rojas-Urrego, Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

Disasters and the resulting loss and damage to entire communities are often a result of poor decisions and actions. Wetlands for disaster risk reduction, a newly launched policy brief from the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands proposes a raft of recommendations about how to integrate wetlands within national disaster risk reduction (DRR) strategies.

A first key step is to consider wetlands within national policies and to develop plans to prevent and recover from disasters. Collaboration among the development, humanitarian and environment sectors is vital and the development of coherent DRR management plans which harnesses community knowledge is critical. Under the Sendai Framework and Paris agreement, efforts should be made to consider entire river basins or coastal zones, rather than within administrative and political boundaries

“Protection of wetlands is critical and can be ensured by mainstreaming this consideration along with DRR into development policies and public-sector investment decisions. For this to occur, realization at the highest levels of policymaking will continue to be important”, says Mr. Irfan Maqbool, PEDRR Chair and Director of Risk Governance Department at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, Thailand.

This point is echoed in Water Shocks, a new report by Wetlands International on wetlands and human migration, which explains how the worsening condition of wetlands in the Sahel is undermining human well-being and compelling people to migrate, including to Europe. Jane Madgwick, CEO Wetlands International: “Due to increasing floods or droughts, we cannot afford to ignore the role of wetlands across the region in storing and regulating water, as government strategies for disaster risk reduction will otherwise fail.”

There also needs to be a shift in the current development model. A number of studies have shown that the economic value of wetlands and rivers in supporting livelihoods and income generation in a sustainable manner exceeds that of infrastructure, such as dams and irrigation schemes. Building new dams is therefore not always an efficient way to increase economic development.

For example, The Inner Niger Delta is a vast and productive wetland – it provides pasture for a third of the country’s cattle, delivers 8% of its GDP and sustains two million people. But it is being threatened by water extractions for irrigation projects, which have decreased the annual flood pulse, leading to conflicts between the fishers, farmers and herders that once cooperated harmoniously. Guinea and Mali now plan to construct the Fomi Dam upstream of the delta, which could result in more regular man-induced droughts, with three-quarters of the delta dried up.

Instead the emphasis should be on improving the efficiency of existing infrastructure and enhancing the economy through the sustainable use of natural resources. Wetlands are not a one size fits all solution. The capacity of wetlands to reduce disaster risks depends on a number of factors, including the local geography and the social and political context. Policy makers therefore need to consider a range of solutions including a mix of natural and hard engineering.

These solutions should in turn complement other measures, such as early warning systems and evacuation planning. But the role of wetlands is clear: healthy wetlands prevent displacement and protect against disasters.

Blogpost by Ramsar Convention and Wetlands International

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