Arguments for Protection Natural Security Protected areas and hazard mitigation


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Arguments for Protection

Natural Security

Protected areas and hazard mitigation

A research report by WWF and Equilibrium

Written by Sue Stolton, Nigel Dudley and Jonathan Randall
Published 2008, WWF – World Wide Fund for Nature

ISBN: 978-2-88085-280-1

Cover design: HMD, UK
Cover photographs: Top: Tornado building in Indonesia © WWF / Albrecht G. Schaefer
Bottom: The debris following Hurricane Mitch. Tegucigalpa, Honduras © WWF-Canon / Nigel Dickinson


We would like to thank WWF, and in particular Liza Higgins-Zogib, Alexander Belokurov and Duncan Pollard for asking us to prepare this report and through them for the funding provided by the DGIS-TMF Programme (Project No: C8F0014.01): Poverty Reduction through Improved Natural Resource Management and by the World Bank.

Anita van Breda from the WWF-US Humanitarian Partnerships Program has provided guidance and comment throughout the development of the report. Surin Suksuwan from WWF-Malaysia worked with us throughout the final stages of the report providing comment and fantastic support in ensuring the WWF Network were aware of and able to comment on the draft. We would also like to thank L N Silva, M Bugalho and A Do Ó for contributing the case study on Portugal.

Kathy MacKinnon from the World Bank provided insightful comments on the final draft for which we are particularly grateful. Others who commented on the text include Arjan Berkhuysen, WWF-Netherlands; Richard Beilfuss, Department of Scientific Services (Gorongosa Research Center), Mozambique; Dr. Christine Bratrich, WWF Danube-Carpathian-Programme, Austria; Anurag Danda, WWF Sundarbans Coordinator, India; Finn Danielsen, NORDECO, Denmark; Pushpam Kumar, University of Liverpool, UK; Rizwan Mahmood, Freshwater and Toxics Programme, WWF-Pakistan; Musonda Mumba, Freshwater Programme, WWF-Eastern Africa Regional Programme Office; Prakash Rao, WWF-India Climate Change and Energy Programme; Dr Robbie Robinson, IUCN-WCPA; Asae Sayaka, Wetlands International, Thailand Office; Kirsten Schuyt, WWF-Netherlands, Tony Whitten, World Bank and Clive Wilkinson, Reef & Rainforest Research Centre, Australia.

The International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) welcomes this report as a concrete response to its call for work to promote understanding that: protection of vital ecosystem services is fundamental to reducing vulnerability to disasters and strengthening community resilience.
Although there is a growing recognition that natural habitats can help to mitigate disasters caused by vulnerability to hazards, we still have a great deal to learn about how to maximise the potential benefits and about what this means in terms of landscape-scale management approaches. Clear evidence linking habitat degradation to a series of so-called “natural” disasters have added urgency to the need for further research and monitoring efforts. These problems are likely to increase as a result of the disturbance caused by climate change. Research shows that the poorest members of society consistently fare worst when disaster strikes.
At the same time, natural ecosystems continue to be degraded at an alarming rate, so that in many countries we can no longer assume they exist in good enough condition to provide the environmental services upon which many people depend. In response, governments and local communities are setting aside and where necessary restoring natural habitats deliberately for their protective role. Although protected areas such as national parks and nature reserves are primarily designed to conserve biodiversity, most also supply important environmental services, including disaster mitigation. Whilst this is understood and acted upon by many protected area managers, it has never been systematically assessed and the current report makes a first attempt to provide a global overview.

By focusing the case studies on major disasters in the new millennium, the authors have deliberately chosen a fairly narrow data set rather than choosing “best case” examples. They have found cases where protected areas clearly play a major role in disaster mitigation and cases where the links are not so clear cut or where changes in management approaches within protected areas are needed.

One clear result of this study is a need for specialists in disaster risk reduction, environmental management and protected areas to work together far more closely than they have in the past. There is already much that could be done through better collaboration to increase the role of natural habitats in disaster mitigation and these opportunities will continue to increase as we learn more. We call on both communities to develop talks and to take the necessary steps to ensure that natural safety measures are maintained and enhanced.












Chapter 1: Natural Disasters: A Global Phenomenon


Chapter 2: Causes of Disaster


Chapter 3: Disaster Impacts


Chapter 4: Protected Areas and Disaster Mitigation


Chapter 5: Could protection have helped?

  • The Mozambique floods of 2000 and 2001

  • The 2000 floods in Bangladesh

  • Central and Eastern Europe flooding in the Lower Danube in 2006

  • Heat waves and forest fires in the summer of 2003 in Portugal

  • The Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004

  • Hurricane Katrina in the USA in 2005

  • The Pakistan Earthquake of 2005


Chapter 6: The future


Appendix 1: International agreements linking ecosystem management to disaster reduction


Appendix 2: Review of information and guidance material available to protected area managers relating to disaster mitigation





This is the fifth volume in the WWF series of reports developed as part of the Arguments for Protection project which is assembling evidence on the social and economic benefits of protected areas to widen and strengthen support for park creation and management.

In this volume we explore the increasing number and severity of so-called natural disasters, review how environmental degradation is contributing to this trend, look at how conservation through protection is currently mitigating the impacts of hazards and disasters and discuss the options for further developing the role of protected areas in disaster prevention and mitigation strategies.
The 21st century has already seen the impact of some truly horrific and record-breaking disasters such as the Indian Ocean Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in the US. Are these really the ‘one hundred year’ events policy makers tell us they are, or is the increasing destruction and fragmentation of biodiversity and the consequent decline in ecosystem services making the impact of such events more extreme? After all, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment estimates that approximately 60 per cent of the world’s ecosystem services (including 70 per cent of regulating and cultural services) are being degraded or used unsustainably, and notes that: “Changes to ecosystems have contributed to a significant rise in the number of floods and major wild fires on all continents since the 1940s 1.
Economic losses from weather and flood catastrophes have increased ten-fold over the past 50 years, partially as the result of climate change. And with more than half of the world’s population exposed to at least one hazard that has the potential to become a disaster this is a subject matter that none of us can afford to ignore. Disaster reduction strategies have many elements but this report focuses on two of the most important: prevention and mitigation.

At present, billions of dollars are spent on the aftermath of disasters even though experience shows that spending on pre-disaster mitigation is a far better value that can lessen the enormous suffering that disasters usually result in. The World Bank, for example, suggests that every dollar invested in effective disaster reduction measures saves seven dollars in terms of reduced losses from natural disasters. So, as in the other reports in the Arguments for Protection series, we argue that investment in a well-managed, ecologically representative, global system of protected areas can produce benefits far beyond the conservation of biodiversity. Therefore protected area professionals, need to consider the role of protected areas in disaster mitigation when planning, managing, and advocating the contribution protected areas make to society.

We recognise that there have been many international agreements and declarations linking the preservation of ecosystem services with the mitigation of disasters, but note that in many cases it is only the permanent and well-managed setting aside of land and sea as protected areas which can provide the stability and protection so often called for.
We find that protected areas can play three direct roles in preventing or mitigating disasters arising out of natural hazards:

  • Maintaining natural ecosystems, such as coastal mangroves, coral reefs, floodplains and forest that may help buffer against natural hazards

  • Maintaining traditional cultural ecosystems that have an important role in mitigating extreme weather events, such as agroforestry systems, terraced crop-growing and fruit tree forests in arid lands

  • Providing an opportunity for active or passive restoration of such systems where they have been degraded or lost

Specifically we find that:

Natural or semi-natural habitats conserved in protected areas can help to mitigate flooding by:

  • Providing space for floodwaters to go without causing major damage

  • Absorbing the impacts of floods with natural vegetation

Protected areas retain natural vegetation, particularly forests, which can in certain circumstances, prevent and mitigate landslides and avalanches by:

  • Stabilising soil and packing snow in a way that stops the slippage starting

  • Slowing the movement and extent of damage once a slip is underway

Protected areas help to retain natural vegetation, reefs and landforms that can help block sudden incursions by seawater, with particular benefits from the stabilising effects of:

  • Coral reefs
  • Offshore barrier islands

  • Mangrove forests

  • Sand-dunes

  • Coastal marshes

Protected areas can provide barriers against the impacts of drought and desertification by:

  • Reducing pressure (particularly grazing pressure) on land and thus reducing desert formation

  • Maintaining populations of drought resistant plants to serve as emergency food during drought or for restoration

Protected areas can protect against fire by:

  • Limiting encroachment into the most fire-prone areas

  • Maintaining traditional cultural management systems that have controlled fire

  • Protecting intact natural systems that are better able to withstand fire

Protected areas can help address problems of hurricanes and typhoons through:

  • Their role in mitigating floods and landslides

  • Directly buffering communities and land against the worst impacts of a storm events (e.g. storm surge)

The main role of protected areas in the case of earthquakes is in:

  • The prevention or mitigation of associated hazards including particularly landslides and rock falls

  • Providing zoning controls to prevent settlement in the most earthquake prone areas

Protected areas can also play a role in addressing some of the underlying causes of disasters through, for example:

  • Stabilising climate change through carbon sequestration

  • Halting the loss of forest quality and quantity

  • Protecting against river fragmentation and wetland loss

  • Protecting coral reefs

However, discussing the role protected areas can play in disaster mitigation is, at least at present, not a wholly positive story. The under protection of some biomes, for example, coastal mangrove forests, and the exploitation rather than the conservation of forests and wetlands has left many areas extremely vulnerable to disaster; disasters which in reality are not ‘natural’ at all but are the consequence of our scant regard for the ecosystem services our natural environment provides.

We thus conclude this report with a 12 point Action Plan for Integrating Disaster Mitigation Planning into Protected Areas calling for:

  1. A great deal is already known about the role of natural ecosystems in mitigating disaster. Further research should now focus on the scale of disasters for which natural ecosystems can provide effective mitigation strategies. Appropriate natural resource management strategies should be identified.

  2. Additional tools are needed to help planners identify the most valuable places where natural ecosystems need to be protected and/or restored to provide disaster mitigation services – through, for example, overlaying ecosystem data with hazard mapping in an opportunity analysis.


  1. At a national and regional/transboundary scale opportunity analyses should be used to identify places where natural systems could mitigate disasters and to develop associated protection strategies, including the establishment of new protected areas.

  2. At a protected area scale, some protected area authorities may consider revising their management objectives and management plans to better reflect and conserve the contribution of their protected areas in providing ecosystem services, including mitigating disasters.


  1. The links between protected areas and disaster mitigation need to be made explicit when implementing or revising the various disaster reduction initiatives reviewed in Appendix 1.
  2. Similarly, lending agencies and donors supporting protected area establishment and management should consider the disaster mitigation role of protected areas in project planning and implementation and facilitate the integration of environment and disaster management professionals.

  3. Protected area managers and agencies need to build a working relationship with those working on disaster management before disasters happen to maximise synergies and opportunities.

  4. Effective examples of where land and sea-use management are contributing to disaster mitigation need to be identified, application of management options field-tested and results disseminated to help other protected area mangers and agencies as well as disaster recovery agencies.

  5. The underlying causes of the increase in hazard and disaster occurrence, such as climate change, forest loss and hydrological disturbance, should be addressed as part of a preventative strategy.


  1. Further development is needed on economic evaluation of protected area contribution towards disaster mitigation and to investigate funding options for maintenance of natural defence systems, including innovative use of Payment for Environmental Services schemes and use of insurance premiums to maintain strategically important ecosystem services.

  2. The effectiveness of protected areas in disaster mitigation is closely linked to management success, so that some of the funds available for disaster mitigation should be allocated to improve management effectiveness of protected areas.


  1. Once plans have been developed, protected area managers need to ensure that steps needed to maximise disaster reduction potential are included in day-to-day work programmes and priorities including relationship building with local disaster response agencies.

Not only must we emphasize the importance of nature’s capital and the fact that it

is being overused, we must also make people understand how nature’s capital contributes to world stability and find ways to change the situation.

Klaus Toepfer former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme2

This has not been an easy report to write – much of the literature on disasters centres on the terrible consequences of natural disasters on our fellow humans. Thanks to the world-wide web and global media network we can access first-hand accounts of the death and injury wrought by natural disasters and read vivid descriptions of the plight of those left behind in the wake of often overwhelming destruction. Despite the aim of researching and writing a report on environmental issues the stories of the people caught up in these terrible events are compellingly real, and provide what is often an appalling human backdrop to our analysis.

But this is not a report about the human suffering which results from natural disasters – although the voices of those affected by disaster can be heard here. Rather it is a discussion about why our environment is becoming less effective in mitigating the effects of natural hazards, and how lack of environmental protection is contributing to the social, economic and environmental costs of disasters.

It is still a depressing story to tell. And the message is hardly new. In many parts of the world the link between environmental management and disaster mitigation has been known and acted upon for centuries. More recently environmental writers have been advising on the need for sound ecological management to mitigate the impacts of a range of natural hazards for 30 years or more3.
This report repeats many of these calls, but concentrates on one specific conservation strategy, protected areas. Of course, conservation through protection is only one piece in the jigsaw puzzle of responses needed to ensure that when disasters happen the consequences are minimised. There will always be impacts – but if the harrowing accounts of suffering following disasters are to be reduced then every piece in the jigsaw puzzle of disaster management needs to be in place.

As the number of lives lost and the economic and social toll rise, the focus on disasters has sharpened. Report after report, conference after conference and agreement after agreement list the terrifying impacts of natural disasters on our world and call for better disaster management in the short-term and disaster reduction in the long-term. This report looks specifically at the latter issue and as such will contribute to the call from the 2005 World Conference on Disaster Reduction to take a closer look at “the environmental aspects of disasters, and particularly in the critical roles in disaster reduction of managing and maintaining environmental systems to reduce the impact of disasters4; and provides input to the UN’s Inter-Agency Secretariat of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) note that “Although the inherent links between disaster reduction and environmental management are recognized, little research and policy work has been undertaken on the subject. The intriguing concept of using environmental tools for disaster reduction has not yet been widely applied by many practitioners5.

Chapter 1: Natural Disasters: A Global Phenomenon

A healthy environment enhances the capacity of societies to reduce the impact of natural and human-induced disasters, a fact largely underestimated.

International Strategy for Disaster Reduction6

What is a natural disaster?

To discuss the impacts of disasters and the strategies available to mitigate their impacts it is important first to be clear about what we mean by the term disaster when linked to natural events (see box 1). As the ISDR points out: “Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a natural disaster, but there are natural hazards, such as cyclones and earthquakes … A disaster takes place when a community is affected by a hazard … In other words, the impact of the disaster is determined by the extent of a community’s vulnerability to the hazard. This vulnerability is not natural. It is the human dimension of disasters, the result of the whole range of economic, social, cultural, institutional, political and even psychological factors that shape people’s lives and create the environment that they live in.”7

The literature on disaster management has increasingly made the links between disasters and natural systems. Put simply if natural systems are degraded and the effectiveness of ecosystem services reduced then the consequences of natural hazards such as heavy rain, hurricanes, earthquake or drought are likely to be exacerbated and can in some cases lead to a disaster – hence the phrase “natural disaster”. It is therefore likely that if natural systems are compromised, either locally through activities such as deforestation or wetland drainage, or globally, due to the impacts of climate change, the impacts of the disaster are likely to increase.


Hazard: A potentially damaging physical event, phenomenon or human activity that may cause the loss of life or injury, property damage, social and economic disruption or environmental degradation.

Disaster: A serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society causing widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses which exceed the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources.

Disaster risk management: The systematic process of using administrative decisions, organization, operational skills and capacities to implement policies, strategies and coping capacities of the society and communities to lessen the impacts of natural hazards and related environmental and technological disasters. This comprises all forms of activities, including structural and non-structural measures to avoid (prevention) or to limit (mitigation and preparedness) adverse effects of hazards.

Disaster risk reduction (disaster reduction): Conceptual framework of elements which may minimise vulnerability and disaster risks, to either avoid (prevention) or to limit (mitigation and preparedness) the adverse impacts of disasters, within the broad context of sustainable development. The framework is composed of a range of actions including:

  • Risk awareness and assessment including hazard analysis and vulnerability/capacity analysis

  • Knowledge development including education, training, research and information

  • Public commitment and institutional frameworks
  • Measures including environmental management, land-use and urban planning, facility protection, application of science and technology, partnership and networking and financial instruments

  • Early warning systems including forecasting, dissemination of warnings, preparedness measures and reaction capacities

Edited from the basic definitions on disaster developed by the UN’s ISDR Secretariat8

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