In recent years, extreme natural events – from earthquakes to tsunamis to hurricanes – seem more common, becoming disasters when human interests are affected. The growing impact of such disasters may be due to increasing human population in vulnerable areas. As important and urgent as the human needs are following disasters, recovery efforts should also be taking into account how nature can contribute. Ecosystem services (Chapter 4) are both affected by these extreme events and can be part of the response to them. Reconstruction efforts following disasters often give opportunities to bring about more far-reaching and longer-term changes which will aid recovery of both people's livelihoods and security and the ecosystems on which many rely.
Addressing environmental concerns is an integral part of a successful recovery plan and will also reduce the vulnerability of local people should future disasters occur. History shows that earthquakes tend to recur in the same regions while events such as floods, cyclones, and droughts are increasing in frequency and intensity. Armed with this forewarning, planning should include all possible measures to both mitigate and adapt to this changing world. Those involved in the reconstruction now have that window of opportunity to change how they respond to the longer-term tasks of reconstruction and establishing sustainable livelihoods. But to make the most of this opportunity, they must be sure to draw from the lessons learned in coping with previous disasters and employ appropriate strategies as they develop their response.
The environment needs to be a central concern in all stages of a typical post-disaster response. Initially, of course, the rescue phase must focus on the immediate needs of people affected by the event. However, in the rescue and relief phases, the potential impact of actions taken to alleviate human suffering can also have unforeseen negative effects on the environment. For example, providing fuel wood instead of kerosene or natural gas can lead to deforestation in the surrounding region, increasing the threat of subsequent landslides. Decisions taken for shortterm measures such as temporary resettlement can have long-lasting consequences, for example if disaster refugees are sheltered in a national park. Longer-term recovery will typically require concerted and directed action for both people and their environment.
Two key activities in the relief phase – waste management and resettlement of affected people – can have profound influences on ecosystem function. In terms of the direct causes of environmental degradation, both can result in habitat loss or fragmentation, pollution, and spread of invasive species. Resettlement can also have the unintended consequence of overexploitation of natural resources as people living in new situations may likely need to scrounge for food, wood for heat and cooking, and natural products to consume or sell for income.
“Specific examples from which to derive important lessons for future planning come from experiences with previous responses to major disasters.”
Specific examples from which to derive important lessons for future planning come from experiences with previous responses to major disasters. For example, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), in a review of the recovery from the 2004 tsunami in the Andaman Sea in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, noted that accumulated debris in lagoons and other coastal ecosystems, plus salt intrusion inland, negatively affected local fisheries and agricultural productivity. The report also found that cleanup actions were affecting the environment, as municipalities dumped waste into wetlands with resulting impacts on drainage systems and flood retention areas, increasing the potential for waterborne diseases. Some of the proposed resettlement sites would threaten biodiversity-rich areas so the report recommended that resettlement sites should be located with an adequate buffer between them and the biologically sensitive sites and should ensure that the number of households relocated were within the carrying capacity of the area (ADB, 2005).
Invasive species present another important, but often overlooked threat. A post-tsunami environmental assessment carried out by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) together with the Sri Lankan Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources found, among other things, that the giant waves carried invasive alien species such as prickly-pears (Opuntia) and salt-tolerant mesquite (Prosopis) further inland, reaching protected areas such as Yala National Park. These non-native species are replacing the native species that are more palatable to Sri Lanka's livestock and wildlife (UNEP, 2005).
Invasive species were also a critical concern in the recovery plans for Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2006. The Formosan subterranean termite, Coptotermes formosanus, is native to China but was accidentally introduced into the United States, and has since invaded at least nine southern states. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the Formosan termite was annually responsible for an estimated US$ 100 million in damage to homes and businesses in the New Orleans area (US EPA, 2005). Following Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry passed the Formosan Termite Initiative Act, effectively a quarantine on debris from the disaster (Louisiana Department of Agriculture, 2005). The act noted that “The hurricane has left millions of tons of wood debris, including debris infested with Formosan Termites,” and that “Imposition of this quarantine is required to prevent the spread of Formosan termites and infestation of areas, homes and structures that are not currently infested, or which are to be built or reconstructed”.
One of the short-term priorities is managing waste and rubble. In the case of the central China earthquake in 2008, the issues of waste are daunting. China's military is reported to have disposed of more than 8 million cubic metres of earthquake waste, enough to fill the inner space of the “Birds Nest” Olympic stadium in Beijing almost 16 times (WRI, 2008). In addition, dispensing treatment to the large numbers of injured people resulted in significant amounts of medical waste that required careful disposal. Finally, central China is an important producer of many chemicals for agriculture and several reports of damage assessment include release of chemicals such as phosphorus and ammonia into the environment (RSC, 2008).
Together, the medical waste and rubble plus potential leaks from the chemical sites are posing potential threats to the environment upon which people will be depending for food, water and shelter. Failure to address these threats to ecosystem services in the short term, will, in the longer term, delay restoration of people's livelihoods.
Longer-term recovery planning that addresses environmental concerns is a cost-effective approach. As initial planning for recovery begins, environmental considerations should be guided by three key elements – knowledge, capacity, and policy support.
Understanding the impacts on the environment, and subsequently on the ecosystem services provided, is an important step in planning and providing a baseline by which to measure the effectiveness of recovery action. Impacts of events are often felt well beyond the immediate zone of impact and the impact assessments should take this into account. For example, people's employment may depend on resources within an affected area even though they may live hundreds of kilometres away.
Effective action will need not only a sound baseline of knowledge of the state of the environment as action begins but also long-term monitoring of ecosystem changes in support of adaptive management.
Capacity to respond to any disaster will be an important element of success. The sheer scope of most disasters means that all available people power will be needed. Ecosystem rehabilitation will require support from the people living in the area and, often, funding from government for aid agencies. Capacity also includes public support and engagement for all restoration actions taken. Public awareness campaigns on the importance of the environment's role in supporting recovery are also needed.
Policy support for action
From previous disasters, several lessons have already been learned about the need for supporting policies in aid of long-term environmental management. For example, policies on building construction codes may need to be established in terms of zoning for types of construction and types of building materials used. And, of course, mandating environmental impact assessment (EIA) requirements for both short and longer-term infrastructure is essential. In addition, as disasters may result in several areas of severely altered environments, rehabilitation may require establishment and enforcement of protected areas as buffer zones.
In developing longer-term plans, some of the policies that should be considered include:
Ecosystem policies that foster spatial and biological heterogeneity when choosing sites and also improve ecological resilience by re-establishing key ecological processes upon which agricultural and natural communities depend (e.g. hydrological cycles, nutrient cycles and flows); and
Socio-economic policies that support infrastructure development that minimizes impact on ecosystems and creates new and potentially sustainable resources and adds to the diversity of economic resources available.
When the knowledge, capacity and policies are in place, effective action can follow. That action should be taken with a landscape-scale approach in mind. Landscape-scale management acts on a scale broad enough to recognize the role of all critical influencing factors and stakeholders that shape land-use decisions (McNeely and Scherr, 2003; Scherr and McNeely, 2007). Good landscape management will fulfil societal needs by equitably balancing trade-offs between the productive, social and environmental requirements of current land use.
Landscape approaches should include specific consideration of environmental flows of water. An environmental flow is the water provided within a river, wetland or coastal zone to maintain ecosystems and their benefits (Dyson et al., 2003). Development of water resources upstream has consequences for the livelihoods of downstream users and ecosystems. Adequate environmental flows provide critical contributions to river health, economic development and poverty reduction. They ensure the continued availability of the many benefits that healthy river and groundwater systems bring to society. This is key to directly delivering on Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 7 (Environmental sustainability) and indirectly supporting achievement of the health-related and education-related MDGs.
In developing ecosystem recovery plans, various options need to be considered. Many different stakeholders are involved, from local villagers to city dwellers, depending on products from the region to international tourists who bring in valuable income. Each may want something different and the development choices made will need to balance the demands. Tools are available to help with this exercise, including developing scenarios, estimating flows, and conducting strategic environmental impact assessments. In the end, though, planners have to recognize that the ideal of a “win-win” result is unlikely and that they will need to find the best “win more-lose less” option.
Experience in ecosystem recovery from both natural hazards and manmade threats has yielded several key principles to be incorporated in planning the recovery from a disaster:
Take the opportunity to do things better
Don't simply plan to re-create what was there before
Choose the most viable areas in which to work
Not all areas affected by the disaster need active rehabilitation
Create a plan with flexibility to adapt
Assume that the plan will change as it is being implemented
Don't assume a “one size fits all” strategy
Avoid further damage to the environment through the actions taken.
Finally, in developing the response plan, it will be critical to include the potential impacts of future climate change, both in terms of adaptation and mitigation. Options for restoration should include efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, should avoid measures that might result in increased emissions, and design measures that will help affected communities adapt to expected changes in climate.
Given these lessons learned from managing responses to other disasters as well as current knowledge of complicating factors such as impacts of climate change, any actions taken as part of the disaster recovery plan should include consideration of ecosystems. This could include adapting to the future through carefully considering which species are used for reforestation and adjusting locations of villages to reduce vulnerability to future threats.
Full recovery from disasters takes an immense and coordinated effort and considerable investment of resources. But it is also an opportunity to unite people and create a better future that includes sustainable management of ecosystem services in support of development and an opportunity to take measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change in the process.
The incidence of extreme events and disasters, especially under the influence of climate change, is a growing concern for the environment. In the coming decade, the conservation community needs to learn from experiences in ecosystem-based adaptation for climate change and apply these to help reduce vulnerability of people to extreme events. We also need to promote improved management of the ecosystem services that will protect communities from extreme natural events and provide productive options for reconstruction and adaptation.
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