The Vital Role of Protected Areas in Climate Disaster Risk Reduction

, , deputy director, Climate & Energy Program | November 17, 2014, 12:42 pm EST
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There’s been a huge buzz at the World Parks Congress in Australia this week about the need to implement carbon reduction plans and accelerate climate resilience strategies. President Obama’s emissions agreement with the Chinese government on the eve of the Congress helped set the stage for serious discussion about climate. And with the G20 meeting taking place in Brisbane, the local media has taken great delight in contrasting Australia’s dismal policies on coal and carbon taxes with the new Sino-U.S. commitment to reduce emissions.

The world’s protected areas are feeling the effects of climate change

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Chingaza National Park, Colombia. Photo: Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero

Here in Sydney, however, participants have been focused on protected areas in the context of biodiversity conservation. The organization behind this once-a-decade meeting, IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature), released a new assessment of the current state of natural World Heritage sites and found that the biggest threat globally is from climate change.

Deforestation, invasive species, poaching, and industrial development are all still taking a serious toll, but climate impacts have risen to the top of the international conservation agenda because they are here now and can no longer be ignored. Iconic protected areas including Yellowstone, the Everglades, and the Great Barrier Reef are already suffering the consequences of climate change, as are many more, less famous, but equally biologically and culturally valuable places. For example, the high altitude paramo habitats of Chingaza National Park In Colombia, now under threat from warming temperatures, provide drinking water for 8 million people in Bogota.

What has been remarkable at this meeting, and from my point of view extremely positive, is the extent to which protected areas are now being talked about not just as “victims” of climate change, but also as a key part of the solution through their integration into climate resilience strategies.

A dollar invested in mangrove conservation can save $20 in hurricane losses

A new IUCN study, Safe Havens: Protected Areas for Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation, presented here at the Congress, details 18 case studies showing how protected areas can be hugely influential in reducing vulnerability and damage. Studies undertaken after the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka showed that in Hikkadawa, where reefs are in a marine protected area, damage only reached 50m inland, whereas at Peraliya, where extensive coral mining is degrading the reef, waves reached 10m high and damage extended 1.5km inland.

A case study on Barbados carried out for the IUCN report by re-insurance company SwissRe suggests that every dollar invested in the mangrove forests of the Folkestone Marine Park can reduce $20 in hurricane losses. SwissRe found that mangrove and reef revival programs, along with coastal and inland zoning, were by far the most cost-effective risk reduction measures. Healthy coral reefs, for example, can reduce storm surge impacts by 50 percent. According to SwissRe, expected annual loss in Barbados is approximately 4 percent of GDP, but that taken together, the most cost-effective investments could avert 35 percent of future losses.

Oil exploration access canal at Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve, Louisiana. Phot: Celine Colin

Oil exploration access canal at Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve, Louisiana. Photo: Celine Colin

The U.S. case study in the IUCN report examined the post-Katrina benefits of restoring the coastal barrier islands of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve. The marshes and swamps of the Jean Lafitte NHPP are crisscrossed by oil exploration access canals which date from before the site’s designation to the National Park system in 1978. Work is now underway to backfill many of these canals in order to reduce saltwater intrusion and vegetation die-off, as well as to control invasive plant species. The preserve directly borders Mississippi west bank urban areas of metropolitan New Orleans. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, no levees with adjacent swamps failed – only those with no buffering from the storm surge were damaged or breached. The barrier islands too perform a vital protective role. Scientists estimate that their loss could raise storm surge wave height by up to as much as 1.25m. According to The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the barrier islands contribute $20 million in storm risk reduction annually.

We need to develop green and blue infrastructure for resilience

Another World Parks Congress workshop I attended took the concept of ecosystem-based climate disaster reduction a step further. In this case by applying the principles of natural ecosystem vitality and restoration across the landscape, not just in protected areas. The Climate Buffers Coalition in the Netherlands has been working since 2006 to design and implement a set of large-scale demonstration projects across the country. The Netherlands already has the most highly

Coastal dynamics at Den Helder, Netherlands, from the International Space Station. Photo: NASA

Coastal dynamics at Den Helder, Netherlands, from the International Space Station. Photo: NASA

engineered and best protected coastline in the world, but it still suffers from serious flooding, especially as extreme rainfall events increase.

The Climate Buffers project aims to restore the natural capacity of coastal dunes, estuaries, and wetlands to protect against flooding. The project includes work to relocate river dikes to increase floodplain area, digging peak flow bypasses, creating rainwater storage capacity in wetlands, restoring peatlands so they can act as sponges, and re-instituting processes such as meandering and sedimentation by removing walls from channelized rivers.

Australian conservation scientist Peter Bridgewater (former Secretary General of the UN’s Ramsar Convention) was in the audience and called this approach “developing green and blue infrastructure.” He noted that protected areas are already there, and that’s good, but this is about “things that we put in, we build, we restore.”

Transforming the way we think about disaster risk reduction

What’s clear from all I’ve been hearing here in Sydney is that the political dynamic regarding conservation and climate impacts is changing from one of protection and preservation from change, to one of resilience and integration with community needs and adaptation planning outside the confines of protected area borders. It’s an exciting and important conceptual shift, and one that I think is just now entering the mainstream.

The next step, as IUCN’s Radhika Murti, one of the co-authors of the Safe Havens report said here this week, is to “get climate people talking with disaster people…Communities don’t differentiate between disasters and climate impacts. But pre-disaster conditions determine disaster impacts.”

I hope that the work UCS is doing on climate preparedness is going to play an important part in the transformation of the way we approach climate resilience and disaster risk reduction in the U.S.

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