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date: 10 April 2021

Ecosystem-Based Disaster Risk Reductionfree

  • Deepthi WickramasingheDeepthi WickramasingheUniversity of Colombo, Faculty of Science, Zoology and Environment Sciences


Disasters and their devastating consequences are increasingly evident in the world. Although nobody can prevent a hazard from occurring, individuals, societies, and governments can take necessary steps to avoid a hazard being transformed to a disaster. It is becoming clear that if sufficient efforts are not made, higher costs and greater losses including lives are inevitable. Thus, understanding risk and vulnerability and developing methods to reduce the impact of disasters and increase community resilience are priorities in development agendas. Ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction (Eco-DRR) includes protection, restoration, and sustainable management of ecosystems to obtain nature’s “free services” to reduce disaster risk. The Eco-DRR concept is deeply rooted in nature, ecosystem services, and human practices in contrast to conventional structural disaster management methods. Eco-DRR approaches also contribute to successful implementation of postdisaster recovery. The implementation of Eco-DRR concepts can be challenging, and planning and making integrated decisions leading to sustainable development and nature conservation to harness safety and reduce community risks must be the way forward.


Natural ecosystems provide many services to humans, whose dependence on nature to fulfill requirements for their existence is nothing new (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Board [MEAB], 2003). Even before the term “ecosystem” was in use, people understood that plants and animals lived in harmony with interacted in the air, soil, and water (Kettunen et al., 2009).

An ecosystem can be simply described as an entity with two basic components: a living or biological (biotic) community and nonliving (abiotic) environment. An ecosystem is an entity where biotic factors—plants, animals, and microbes—interact with each other as well as with surrounding abiotic factors (MEAB, 2005). Usually, an ecosystem is spread across a vast area either on land or in water. Forests, grasslands, deserts, and coral reefs are some examples of ecosystems.

Researchers and policy makers have grouped the benefits humans derive from nature, known as ecosystem services, into four categories: provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting (Balvanera et al., 2017; Dinerstein et al., 2013). Ecosystems help community well-being when all individuals of a society are given opportunities to meet their individual or group requirements with a large range of choices (IUCN, 2014; Prescott-Allen, 2001).

The increased frequency of disaster events worldwide warrants urgent attention to secure communities and their environment. Anthropogenic alteration of the environment with unsustainable activities, ill-planned land use, loss of biodiversity, and overconsumption of resources have contributed to this proliferation of events (Alcánatar-Ayala, 2002). In addition, climate change exacerbates disaster impact. Environments and disasters are interrelated in various ways, so a change in one component will influence the other. Disasters can cause significant damage to the environment, some of which is irreversible. Similarly, a degraded environment can worsen the impact of disasters (Kelman et al., 2011). Managing ecosystems in order to prevent disasters and postdisaster recovery, as well as increase community capacity to cope with disaster impacts, leads to safe societies and sustainable development.

The benefits that ecosystems offer “free of charge” to reduce disaster risk have gained attention from policy makers and practitioners as an alternative to traditional management methods of disasters, such as engineering solutions (Sudmeier-Rieux & Ash, 2009). Ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction (EcoDRR) is an alternative solution that involves conservation management of ecosystems to achieve sustainable development (Estrella & Saalismaa, 2013).

Against this background, this article intends to shed light on EcoDRR methods and explains how ecosystem services are related to reducing the risk of natural disasters and lessening the probability of turning a natural hazard into a devastating disaster. The article introduces fundamentals of disasters and EcoDRR, and provides examples and case studies.

Materials and Methods

A specific method was carried out to formulate and present this article. Once the topic to be investigated was selected, the key texts and essential information were identified, located, and read. For each section the key literature was reviewed and analyzed. The next step was to present the literature, which involved analysis, evaluation, and synthesis of two broad categories and other relevant topics (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Flow chart to describe the methodology adopted.

Fundamentals of Disasters and Ecosystem-Based Disaster Risk Reduction

This section describes types of disasters, their impact, and disaster management; the concept of EcoDRR; and conceptual debates on how natural ecosystems contribute to disaster risk reduction.

Natural Disasters—Why Is Management Important?

No place on Earth is free of natural hazards. Thus, all human beings are exposed to risks every day. However, depending on exposure and other factors, the type and extent of damage caused by these hazards vary. To understand disaster management and risk reduction, one should understand the fundamental difference between the terms “hazard” and “disaster.” In addition to this, knowledge of some basic concepts related to disasters is also important.


A “hazard” is a process, phenomenon, or human activity that may cause loss of life, injury or other health impacts, property damage, social and economic disruption, or environmental degradation (United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction and International Science Council [UNDRR-ISC], 2020). The cause of a hazard could be natural or anthropogenic. In addition, hazards may be single, sequential, or combined in their origin and effects. Each hazard is characterized by its location, intensity or magnitude, frequency, and probability. This article focuses on natural hazards. Thus, humanmade hazards such as war, pollution, and industrial accidents are not included in the discussion. Moreover, natural hazards of a biological nature, such as infectious diseases and epidemics, are also not discussed.

Natural hazards can be categorized into three simple categories (Figure 2):

Figure 2. Types of natural hazards and the influence of the surrounding environment.


Geophysical hazards are associated with earth processes. These hazards are known for their rapid onset, usually heavy damage, and impact covering a large geographic area. These hazards are the least common on earth. They include plate tectonics, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and landslides.


Atmospheric hazards are associated with atmospheric and weather systems. These events are quite common and some, such as lightning strikes, are of short time duration. These hazards include wildfires, lightning, hurricanes, and tornadoes.


Hydrological hazards are associated with extreme events of the water cycle. Such hazards are a result of a significant or sharp alternation of availability, amount, and distribution of water on Earth. They include floods and droughts.

It is important to understand that hazards and disasters are different. Hazards may cause damage, but they do not always result in disasters. There are three factors that contribute to transforming a hazard into a disaster: exposure, vulnerability, and resilience (UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction [UNISDR], 2009).

Exposure accounts for the different elements, living and nonliving, which are present in a location with a hazard event and are thereby subjected to potential losses and damages. Living elements could be human, animal, and plant populations. Nonliving components include property and infrastructure, such as houses, roads, and buildings. Exposure is an essential but not the sole element that compels those living and nonliving components to disaster. For instance, communities that live in flood prone areas are not exposed to flood disasters if they get proper warnings in time to evacuate and reach safe shelter. Similarly, if earthquake prone areas refrain from the construction of human habitation and infrastructure, no harm will occur, even in the case of an earthquake. However, if an earthquake takes place in a deep-sea bed and does not immediately cause any damage to humans, a resulting tsunami can have detrimental impacts on a coast that is highly populated.

Vulnerability refers to the susceptibility of the living and nonliving elements to the damage that hazards cause (UNISDR, 2009). For instance, there could be different characteristics in a community to make them more vulnerable than others. People who live in low-lying areas of a riverbank are more vulnerable to flood hazards than who live far from the river. Earthquakes in seismic zones cannot be prevented. Therefore, high concentration of human population and poorly built houses that cannot withstand earthquake impacts lead to disasters at a very high level and will likely result in the loss of valuable lives.

Similarly, socioeconomic factors of a community can make societies “disaster-prone.” For example, people who are not well informed and are inadequately prepared are vulnerable to disasters. If the information on disaster preparedness or emergency alerts does not reach people who are living in risky areas due to poor communication facilities, the vulnerability increases.

Resilience denotes the ability of a society or a system to be prepared and to accommodate or recover from the negative impacts and influences of a disaster quickly and effectively (UNISDR, 2009). For instance, farmers who can claim damage to their crops following a drought event are more resilient than those who do not receive compensation for losses.

Thus, a hazard can be transformed into a disaster if:


the exposure is high,


the vulnerability is high, and


the community is not resilient (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Transformation of hazards into disasters.


A “disaster” is defined as a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society at any scale due to hazardous events interacting with conditions of exposure, vulnerability, and capacity, leading to one or more of the following: human, material, economic, and environmental losses and impacts (UNDRR-ISC, 2020). There is evidence that natural disasters hit earth before human civilization. And disasters have been mentioned in historic records. In his dialogue Timaeus and Critias (360 bce), Plato described that Atlantis Island sank into the sea around 9000 bce, probably due to plate tectonic activities (Papamarinopoulos, 2008). He further explained how the landmass disappeared suddenly, which indicates the severity of the event.

Natural disasters receive the attention of the global community because their impacts are visible and destructive to human beings. Yet not all natural disasters bring only negative results. Volcanic eruptions, for instance, emit many gases and earth matter that are essential in the maintenance of the environment. Similarly, hurricanes and floods bring water and contribute to soil fertility in many areas.

Why Do Disasters Matter?

Yet, there is an increasing trend of disasters occurring in many parts of the world with significant impacts. If this tendency continues, the world may reach a state where the impacts are unbearable. The loss of life resulting from disasters has been massive. The number of deaths from disasters between 1980 and 2019 is reported to be as high as 1.6 billion. One of the world’s most disaster prone areas is the Asia-Pacific region. In the period 1970–2011, nearly two million deaths were caused by various disasters, which represents nearly 75% of all global disaster deaths for that period. Economic losses are also estimated to be high and the global annual average economic loss is expected to rise to US $415 billion by 2030 (UNISDR, 2015b).

It is clear that disaster management or reducing the risk of disasters should be an integral part of any socioeconomic development plan, both in local and global agendas. Thus, global communities are increasingly paying attention to the development of effective plans to strengthen disaster risk reduction activities worldwide. Two global agendas stand out: the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) and the Sendai Framework for DRR (UNISDR, 2015a).

The HFA was the result of the World Conference on Disaster Reduction held in January 2005 in Kobe, Hyogo, Japan. The aim of the HFA was to strengthen the efforts of nations to build resilience and coping capacities to mitigate the impacts of natural hazards that threaten vulnerable communities and economies. The HFA highlights proper environmental management to establish and sustain ecosystem services to reduce disaster risk.

The Sendai Framework for DRR (UNISDR, 2015a) was a successor policy tool to the HFA, which expired in 2015. The most critical and visible shift from the HFA was the emphasis placed on disaster risk management instead of disaster management. The Sendai framework defined seven global targets that included preventing new risk, reducing existing risk, and strengthening resilience.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (UNISDR, 2015b) aims to transform the world into a better place for all to live. This document encompasses 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and many targets. Ten of the 17 SDGs include 25 targets related to disaster risk reduction. Thus, there is a growing global focus on multiagency involvement to manage disaster risk.

Ecosystem-Based Disaster Risk Reduction (EcoDRR)

As the name ecosystem implies, nature provides its free service to save humankind. The ability of ecosystems to help reduce disaster impacts is of great interest to researchers and policy makers. EcoDRR refers to conserving and managing ecosystems to establish proper functioning, which in turn helps to reduce disaster risk and enhance community sustainability. This notion reflects two sides of the same coin: Protecting ecosystems to ensure their full functioning helps reduce disaster damage. And when ecosystems are destroyed or disturbed by humans or any other factor they are not able to protect communities from disasters (Srinivas et al., 2009).

The history of EcoDRR goes back to the time of the Indian Ocean tsunami event on December 26, 2004. This was one of the most devastating natural disasters in recent memory, and the event was an eye-opener for many countries who started to think about disaster management differently. Many policy makers and practitioners already understood the need for alternatives to traditional methods of mitigating disaster impacts. Japan took a leading role in developing novel ideas. The Ministry of Environment compiled information and practical advice in its 2005 Ecosystem-Based Disaster Risk Reduction in Japan: A Handbook for Practitioners. The handbook included descriptions and examples of how healthy ecosystems could help to reduce the impact of disasters and introduced the term “EcoDRR.” Understanding the concept of EcoDRR starts with an appreciation of the services provided by the ecosystem and how they are linked to disaster risk reduction.

Ecosystem Services

The definition of “ecosystem services” is difficult to pin down because it is constantly changing and sometimes controversial. The most common definition was provided by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Board (2005): “the benefits the communities obtain from ecosystems.” There are several types of ecosystem services, some of which are directly or indirectly linked to decreasing the negative effects of natural disasters.

Ecosystem Service Categories

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report (2005) recognizes key ecosystem services under four major categories, which are described in this section and depicted in Figure 4.

Provisioning services involve the materials that communities extract and consume directly from ecosystems such as food, medicine, timber, firewood, and water.

Regulating services control climatic processes, especially the water cycle and atmosphere, such as regulating local climates, cooling the atmosphere, and modifying hazards such as floods and drought.

Cultural services help communities with opportunities for recreation, aesthetic beauty, and spiritual benefits.

Supporting services include nutrient recycling, providing habitats for species, and so on.

Figure 4. Schematic diagram to demonstrate four categories of ecosystem services.

Ecosystem Services and Their Link to Disaster Risk Reduction

Ecosystems play multiple roles in reducing disaster risk (Surjan & Shaw, 2009). These natural infrastructures directly help to reduce disaster risk in two ways: (a) they reduce exposure of the communities to disaster events and (b) provide natural “bio-shields” to protect people, and act as buffers to mitigate impact, and contribute to the well-being of humankind.

Some natural habitats provide services worth millions of dollars by minimizing the impact of disasters. For instance, wetlands store excess floodwaters and thereby reduce the devastating effects of floods. This phenomenon is well known to protect the environment as well as communities, especially in low-lying areas. Similarly, coastal wetlands help reduce the speed and volume of storm surges and lessen the impact of droughts by storing water in spongy soil.

Healthy ecosystems can act as protective natural barriers against common hazards. A wide array of coastal ecosystems act as buffers, ranging from coral reefs on the coasts to mangroves that are found at the fringes of estuaries and lagoons. Coastal wetlands act as buffers against coastal disasters such as storm surges, erosion, and flooding. Mangroves caught worldwide attention when it was reported that they reduced the impact of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Healthy ecosystems provide many services that uplift community well-being (UN Environmental Program, 2011). Poor communities in rural areas often rely on their surrounding environment to provide essential goods and services. Benefits obtained from ecosystems such as food and medicine are essential elements in poverty alleviation and make communities healthy (Carpenter et al., 2009). Ecosystems also sustain communities and provide vital elements including medicines, raw materials for construction of houses, and firewood for cooking. These elements are required for daily living and strengthen a community’s ability to cope with disasters. Conversely, people of low socioeconomic status depend on goods provided by the ecosystems for postdisaster rebuilding and recovery; for example, when people lose income as a result of a flood, the sell goods collected from natural ecosystems to make a living.

Anthropogenic Influences on Ecosystem Services

From prehistoric times, human beings have had irreversible influences on nature that still continue in many ways. When ecosystems are affected by human activities, their capacity to function fully is weakened. Thus, the ability to extend ecosystem services is diminished.

Due to agricultural production aimed at improving production to feed the ever-increasing population, mechanized farming and heavy and intense use of agrochemicals including fertilizer and pesticides have dramatically altered the natural environment. The practices of monoculture, which reduces genetic diversity, and selective breeding have influenced the natural environment. Moreover, destruction of the forests and natural vegetation has resulted in a loss of sensitive biodiversity, including genetic resources and species, soil erosion, and water pollution. In other words, agroecosystems have invaded natural ecosystems with detrimental effects on natural ecosystems. Degraded ecosystems are hampered from extending ecosystem services to the environment and to communities. Especially, resources to support people in their daily lives are affected (Figure 5).

This in turn affects the resilience of the communities and the environment. Inadequate provisioning of ecosystem services, such as food, medicine, and firewood, affects community well-being. If regulatory services such as local climate stabilization are inadequate, local communities are affected and their ability to cope with adverse impacts of climate change are reduced.

Figure 5. Anthropogenic influences on natural ecosystems and possible impacts on their ability to reduce disaster risk.

In addition, degraded ecosystems are more exposed to disaster risk and are prone to be more vulnerable. Healthy ecosystems are more resilient in the face of extreme events and possess the ability to recover more rapidly than degraded ones (Sudmeier-Rieux & Murti, 2013). For instance, wetlands when reduced in size due to filling up, encroachment, and fragmentation are less effective in combating disasters. Therefore, to achieve maximum benefits for nature, ecosystem health should be preserved and well managed.

Ecosystem-Based Case Studies and Their Implications

This section begins with a brief summary of the advantages of EcoDRR. Then it describes some global success stories and case studies to illustrate how ecosystems have contributed to disaster risk reduction. This is followed by a discussion of the use of EcoDRR approaches in postdisaster recovery. Finally, challenges to successful application of EcoDRR concepts are discussed.

EcoDRR Success Stories

Natural ecosystems have been restored, conserved, and regulated in some countries to ensure they are able to reduce disaster risk. The following examples demonstrate that when ecosystems are healthy and well maintained, they not only mitigate disaster risks but also help to fulfill other needs of the community, such as livelihoods. Restoration and conservation programs strengthen a community’s well-being and enhances its resistance to disaster impacts (Furuta & Seino, 2016).

Flood Attenuation and Other Services Offered by Wetlands

Muthurajawela is a large coastal marsh located in the Gampaha district in Sri Lanka. Following heavy rains, massive amounts of water enter the marsh, which is connected to a network of canals in the area (Dangalle, 1999; Bambaradeniya et al., 2002). Water is received, retained, and released to the Negombo Lagoon, which is connected to the Indian Ocean (Emerton & Kekulandala, 2003). Thus, the marsh plays an important role in attenuating the impact of floods.

Furthermore, communities in the area get direct benefits form the marsh such as water supply and treatment of domestic and industrial waste (IUCN, 1999). It also provides indirect services that include fishery opportunities and recreational benefits. The wetlands act as a carbon sink that contributes to the decrease in atmospheric carbon, thereby helping to mitigate the effects of climate change. The total ecosystem services offered by the marsh was estimated at 726.49 million Sri Lankan rupees (US$3.8 million) in 2003 (Emerton & Kekulandala, 2003).

The next example comes from China in the flood plains of the Yangtze River, which is the third-longest river in the world. The watershed of this massive river is home to 30% of China’s population. This watershed possesses a high flood risk, yet the local community gets many benefits including the fishery industry (Seavitt, 2013). To mitigate frequent flood risks a wetland restoration program was carried out in Hubei Province, which restored and reconnected many lakes and water bodies to the Yangtze River. A massive extent covering about 448 square kilometers of wetlands that are capable of storing up to 285 million cubic meters of floodwater were rehabilitated. This development reduced flood risks while providing many cobenefits. Other than the flood mitigation, the project enhanced biodiversity conservation in the wetlands. The income of the fishery industry was increased by 20–30% and water quality improved to the usable level, offering many benefits to the communities (Molin et al., 2012). Figure 6 shows how wetlands are reducing flood risk and increasing community resilience.

Figure 6. How wetlands support flood disaster reduction.

Protection Against Avalanches

Valle Las Trancas, a valley located in Chile, is a popular tourist destination. Yet, the regular snow avalanches and debris flow disturb the local community, their livelihood, and the tourism industry. Natural forest vegetation in the valley acts as a barrier that reduces disaster impact. An investigation discovered a clear relationship between the presence of vegetation cover, specifically Nathofagus broadleaf forests, and the intensity of avalanches. The runout distance of avalanches along forested tracks was nearly 20% less than the tracks without forest cover for a 10-year period. It is estimated that the runout distance will be reduced by nearly 25% over the next 100 years (Casteller et al., 2018).

Vegetation as Landslide Risk-Reduction Structure

The positive contribution of plants to protecting soil is a long-proven phenomena. From the ancient times people knew that vegetation cover protected soil from both wind and water erosion. However, studies indicated that trees not only protect topsoil but also reduces landslide risk (Zaitchik et al., 2003). Investigations have supported the notion that root systems of plants that grow inside soils act as a network that fixes soil and make the surface more stable and protected. Woody roots in particular anchor the soil and act as strengthening beams that increase soil coherence (Fourcaud et al., 2008). Landslides have been reported to occur in areas where plants are sparsely located and root distribution is poor (Roering et al., 2003). Plants influence landslide occurrences in many ways. The distribution, length, orientation, and diameter of roots contribute to increased slope stabilization and reduce landslide risks (Stokes et al., 2009).

Ecosystems Offering Defense Against Multiple Disasters

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami attacked coastal regions of the surrounded countries, including Thailand (Barbie, 2006), particularly Phang-nga Province whose northern and southern coasts have healthy and extensive mangrove forests. These mangrove belts were severely damaged on their seaside fringe, but they were able to lessen the damage to the inland coastal communities. In contrast, regions without coastal mangrove covers underwent comparatively more adverse effects. The case was similar in Ranong Province as well. These post-tsunami findings in Thailand supported the fact that the coastal mangrove belts help to reduce the destructive impacts of natural hazards including tsunami, storm surges, cyclones, and hurricanes (Harakunarak & Aksornkoae, 2005).

Bangladesh is one of the most flood prone countries in the world. The Forest Department of Bangladesh commenced a long-term project to rehabilitate natural vegetation with the participation of the communities in the area. The community-based mangrove afforestation project was launched in three districts—Barguna, Bhola, and Noakhali—which are prone to frequent natural hazards including cyclones, storm surges, sea-level rise, coastal erosion, and salinity intrusion. The project was able to give not only hazard protection but also improved biodiversity and carbon sequestration. Communities were strengthened by new income sources generated from nursery and plantation activities of mangroves (Rahman, 2014).

A similar project involving mangrove plantation was carried out by the Vietnam Red Cross in 1994. This community-based plantation reforested 9,462 ha, establishing mangroves over 8,961 ha in different areas. The reforested mangrove cover protects a 100-km dyke line and coastal communities from flooding. The economic benefits of this project include protecting and lessening damages to dykes (US $80,000 to US $295,000), and the value of the other substantial services (US $15 million) is higher than the cost of replantation (US $8.88 million). The project has significantly increased aqua cultural yield, from 209 to 789%. In addition, the mangrove sheet will absorb at least 16.3 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2025 (International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies, 2011).

Case Studies on EcoDRR

Case Study 1:Projects to Reduce the Impact of Drought Hazards

Droughts are one of the most devastating natural hazards that occur in almost all countries around the world. Droughts are a hydrometeorological hazard, where the scarcity of precipitation results in a prolonged shortage of water. It is a hazard with a slow onset and one that may last for years. Unlike many other disasters, droughts directly affect livelihood and economies. Due to its immense dependency on water, the agriculture industry is severely affected by drought. Droughts can result in devastating damage to crops and livestock, especially in rural poor communities where agriculture is largely dependent on rainwater. The effects of drought range from local levels to regional or national levels. Households are affected by reduced food security, and at a more macro level many nations face increased food prices and a loss of production/income from agriculture. Many countries have tried various drought management options and Sudan has implemented a successful approach.

Figure 7. EcoDRR success story: Sudan.

Problem—Sudan is a country in the African continent that faces frequent droughts (Figure 7). Prolonged periods of little or no rainfall lead to a scarcity of water over time that eventually leads to persistent drought. This condition directly affects food security and also causes environmental degradation. Issues of water resource management amid the impacts of climate change exacerbate these problems and lead to frequent community conflicts.

Approach—The United Nations Environmental Programme and the European Commission initiated a pilot project on EcoDRR during the period 2012–2015 in northern Darfur, Sudan. The main focus of the project was to enhance food security and disaster resilience through sustainable management of drylands. The project addressed an improvement in sustainability and access to water resources with an ecosystem-based approach to enhance nature’s services that reduce the impact of drought. The emphasis is on restoration of degraded habitats with improved natural infrastructures and strengthening ecosystem services by enriching the environment with more vegetation cover.

Another salient feature is the involvement of beneficiaries, the village communities, to the implementation of the project and providing them with necessary training to maintain the components of the natural environment for long-term sustainability. The project is also strengthened by a series of awareness raising workshops on EcoDRR for the communities.

Results—The degraded water retention structure in the Eware Valley was rehabilitated and acts as a wetland to store rainwater and withstand heavy rains and flash floods. This has allowed cultivation of large areas of previously abandoned land. Community tree nurseries have supported reforestation programs that directly enhance water retention capacities of soil and reduce soil erosion. This has transformed once-barren land into vegetative areas with improved ecosystem services. In addition, tree nurseries have helped to establish household agroforestry activities that act as small habitat patches and when combined resemble and function as integrated vegetation systems.

Highlights—The project resulted in the expansion of the vegetation area 17.5-fold. Due to increased water and soil conservation measures, enhanced agricultural production was evident, which made communities more resilient to drought disaster. Communities were engaged in carrying out the project and selected community members were trained to look after the project for its continued sustainability.

Case Study 2: Flood Disaster Risk Reduction Using an Ecosystem Approach

Floods are natural events that occur everywhere in the world with both positive and negative effects. Floods are climatological events shaped by geology, nature of the landscape, and vegetation cover of an area. Floods that appear suddenly due to meteorological conditions are known as flash floods. Riverine floods develop more slowly.

Human activities have influenced flood events due to their interference with natural hydrological processes that include rapid urbanization, population growth, and industrialization. This activity reduces the water absorbed by soil or by draining away to a waterway. The clearing of natural vegetation, increased deforestation, and expansion of agricultural practices that result in exposure of soil to precipitation and alter the Earth’s surface also contribute to floods. Human occupancy aggravates this situation, such as the invasion into floodplains and low-lying areas, which otherwise function as natural drainage basins. Especially in urban settings, loss of areas at low elevations and wetlands that store flood water has contributed to increased flood events. At the same time, increased human habitation in flood prone regions such as low-lying areas and riverbanks has intensified the impact of floods. The effects of global warming on climatological and meteorological processes have also been proven to intensify flood events.

The direct effects of floods include loss of life, harm to property, and devastation of croplands, livestock, and industries. Indirectly, floods also result in impaired health due to polluted water, pathogenic waterborne diseases, and the spread of vector-borne diseases. Disruption of services including electricity and water supply poses threats to communities and governments.

Figure 8. EcoDRR success story: Sri Lanka.

Problem—Sri Lanka is an island located in the Indian Ocean at the tip of India. The country is increasingly facing the effects of disasters, many of which are aggravated by human influence on nature (Figure 8). Colombo City is the commercial capital of the country and, together with its suburbs, experiences pressure from population expansion, urban growth, and unsustainable development activities. Colombo District is located in a low-lying area in the lower reaches of the Kelani River, which reaches the sea via highly populated urban areas. As a result, many natural areas have been converted to infrastructure including buildings, commercial centers, and roads. One salient feature is the reclamation of low-lying areas, marshes, and wetlands for the expansion of urban activities. Growth of impervious areas, disruption to the natural water cycle, and the change in climate has led to more frequent rain. The increased amount of precipitation has led to intensified flooding.

Thus, Colombo Metropolitan Area (CMA) is becoming more and more flood prone with further damage to communities and infrastructure and disruptions in services. For instance, a devastating flood in 2010 caused several deaths and an economic loss of more than US $50 million. In addition, with each flood, many social, economic, and environmental impacts result in unbearable costs to the government and communities.

Approach—The Sri Lankan government, following a study on flood risk and impact assessment, noted that there is a link between the loss of wetlands and low-lying areas to the increased flood events and impact. They implemented a project to identify important wetlands in the CMA and restore their quality and establish connectivity among isolated habitats to function as a full-fledged network of wetlands to reduce flood risk.

Results—The project offers multiple benefits. It has supported the Sri Lankan government’s development of an inclusive strategy to restore and manage urban wetlands to reduce flood risks. The restoration of wetlands and their connectivity to other water bodies has enhanced existing retention capacity of the watershed. Comprehensive studies on biodiversity, hydrology and other geophysical characteristics, socioeconomic fabric, and stakeholder engagement in wetland conservation were carried out to provide baseline data and address research gaps.

Highlights—The project offers multiple cobenefits. Two wetland parks were established to raise public awareness, encourage research opportunities, and provide locations for leisure activities. The studies identified revenue potential from the improved wetland system of up to $13 million revenue annually.

The next steps include formulation of a legally demarcated “wetland conservation zone” with legislative protection that will strengthen conservation activities. Furthermore, intercity transportation via a canal system is also proposed, which will help alleviate traffic issues on busy roads. Other cobenefits include enhanced aesthetic beauty, environmental cooling, opportunities for nature observations, and mitigation of climate change impact.

EcoDRR for Postdisaster Recovery

One important phase in disaster management cycle is recovery (UNISDR, 2012). Disaster recovery is defined as the return to the normal socioeconomic and environmental state following a natural disaster. Adopting EcoDRR strategies for postdisaster recovery has received little attention from the planners and practitioners. In general, EcoDRR concepts are practiced before a disaster event. Rehabilitation events following disasters generally focus on more technical aspects or involve the community and other stakeholders (UN Development Program [UNDP], 2004). Many issues at both local and national/regional levels should be carefully dealt with to successfully incorporate EcoDRR approaches in postdisaster recovery.

Local Level

One of the most critical issues is inadequate awareness among communities of the importance of nature conservation and its link to disaster risk reduction benefits. Poor knowledge of the use of nature’s protective shield against disasters leads the general public to underestimate ecosystems and their services.

Especially following a disaster event, local communities ignore the responsibility of conserving nature. For instance, after a flood disaster, residents of the area will clean up houses, buildings, infrastructure, and agricultural landscapes. Low-lying areas, marshes, and wetlands are not cleaned, and most waste and rubble accumulates in these areas, which remain filled and blocked. Sometimes, communities who are under pressure to recover their lifestyles overconsume and misuse ecosystem components such as food, timber, and fuel wood. Such activities tend to insert pressure, especially on sensitive ecosystems.

Disasters not only affect people’s lives and livelihoods but also damage the environment they live in and depend on for services. The 2008 earthquake in Sichuan resulted in landslides and loss of forests, which altered the landscape. Due to the massive portions of earth that blocked and disturbed flow regimes of water, new “quake lakes” were created (Mainka & McNeely, 2011). Such alterations could make landscapes unstable and more prone to disasters.

National and Regional Levels

Inadequate research and policy studies on the relationship between disaster mitigation and proper environmental resource management are identified as another difficulty to apply and adopt effective EcoDRR measures. Deterioration of natural environments and ecosystems have been found to be one of the main triggers for natural disasters (Dhyani & Dhyani, 2016). Human-induced influence on ecosystems weakens their well-being and influences the services they offer.

Formulation and implementation of policies that pay little attention to the importance of the natural environment in local and regional development destroy ecosystems and disturb their functioning. Soon after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami caused massive destruction in the coastal belt, the Sri Lankan government took a policy decision on restricting developmental activities in the coastal zone (IUCN, 2005b). The protection of the coastal belt is essential because it provides multiple benefits, including physical protection of inland landscapes, people, and their property, and support for the continued livelihood of the communities (IUCN, 2005a). This Sri Lankan government’s decision led to the declaration of a new “coastal buffer zone with no construction allowed,” following which coastal residents were removed and relocated to inland areas. As a result, relocation camps for Tsunami disaster victims in the southern part of the island were constructed in areas away from the buffer zone, in low-lying wetlands in Hambantota District that are more than 2 km from the Indian Ocean. This activity led to many interrelated issues. Wetlands were filled to build housing, which affected their ability to act as a natural buffer to reduce flood impacts. On the other hand, communities were affected in two ways: They were forced to live in flood-prone marshes and had to tolerate many discomforts leading to poor safety and sanitation options. On top of this, relocation made it difficult for them to engage in their normal livelihood, as many of them were fishermen who needed easy access to the ocean (Ingram et al., 2006).

Following the Indian Ocean tsunami, communities were reported to have harmed the environment in the area. For instance, as a result of dumping rubble and other waste from the municipalities, the wetlands were affected by blockage and disruption to the drainage system and flood retention areas in Hambantota district in Sri Lanka (Bambaradeniya et al., 2006).

Thus, as a part of disaster recovery programs, planning authorities need to pay adequate attention to safeguarding the environment. Protecting ecosystems provides a win-win situation for both the environment and the communities who depend on it. More information and research should be used in making development decisions. Decision-makers and researchers should collaborate to identify priority areas for research aimed at integrating community and environmental development.

Challenges to Effective Implementation of EcoDRR Concepts

EcoDRR recently emerged as a promising disaster mitigatory measure (Singh, 2010; Raymond et al., 2017), but is not yet established as a long-term solution irrespective of its multiple benefits (Uy & Shaw, 2012). Apart from being less visible to policy makers as a potential solution, there are many challenges yet to overcome.

Globally each government implements various development projects to achieve different goals that make communities safe, secure, and healthy while addressing the needs of the societies. When prioritizing development needs with competing interests, conserving ecosystems for the services they offer is not often taken into consideration (Shaw et al., 2010). One of the main loopholes in obtaining services from ecosystems is the inability to quantify benefits or their intangible qualities (Renaud et al., 2016).

Another aspect is the uncertainty of when the next disaster might occur (Sinha & Srivastava, 2015). Sometimes the magnitude and the frequency of disasters may not worth investing in EcoDRR in a particular place or time. However, EcoDRR takes a great deal of time before providing visible benefits (Renaud et al., 2013). The invisibility of benefits from EcoDRR measures leads governments to opt for conventional engineering structures such as dams and wave barriers.

With population expansion and subsequent rapid urban development, people have started to settle in places where both the economic opportunities as well as the risks of disaster exposure are high (UNDP, 2004). For instance, settling in coastal zones is increasing with enhanced destruction of coastal ecosystems and illegal encroachment (UNISDR, 2009). Most of the time, these ecosystems demand a lot of time to recover and bounce back to near-pristine conditions. Such activities highlight the need for proper risk assessment and land use planning.

Lack of quantitative evaluation of ecosystem services discourages investments and funding (Lange et al., 2019). However, it is also accepted that everything regarding ecosystems and their services is unique and there are no standardized or universal methods to evaluate ecosystem services (Renaud et al., 2013). As many studies are context-specific and use different methodologies, generalization is difficult and therefore they are not comparable or useful in decision-making.

To convince stakeholders and investors, a government should come up with solid information by addressing the existing knowledge gap. The government should establish a reliable knowledge base on EcoDRR and a standard method to demonstrate links between ecosystem degradation and the disaster risk (Sudmeier-Rieux & Murti, 2013). This requires encouraging research, enhancing technical capabilities, and establishing a pool of human resources (Carro et al., 2018). Similarly, the government may need to provide financial incentives to encourage investment in EcoDRR that is still inadequate (Sudmeier-Rieux & Murti, 2013).

EcoDRR is a multidisciplinary approach encompassing environmental and socioeconomic aspects and multiple stakeholders (Perez et al., 2010; Shaw et al., 2003). This requires governments to enable new policies or make amendments in existing policies and regulations to overcome legal constraints when practicing EcoDRR (Leslie & McLeod, 2007). Implementation of those policies requires better institutionalization and cooperation among the government institutes, research organizations, private sector partners, nongovernmental organizations, and other stakeholders (Grundy et al., 2000).

For any approach and activity to be successful, it needs to be compatible with peoples’ attitudes, and people usually prefer short-term livelihood needs over ecosystem management for disaster risk reduction (Temmerman et al., 2013). Since ecosystem services are not visible and tangible their values are unnoticed and undervalued when compared to uncertain day-to-day survival requirements (Fogde et al., 2013; Furuta & Seino, 2016; Mavrogenis & Kelman, 2013). The establishment of protected area networks restricts the traditional use of resources by communities (West et al., 2006) and it is therefore difficult to attain community support. Thus, the objectives of ecosystem management should include provisions for the broad range of uses of ecosystem goods and services by people.

Periodical monitoring and assessments of environmental quality and possible risk are essential to ensure adequate management of ecosystems (Sudmeier-Rieux & Murti, 2013). Moreover, such activities should encompass short- and long-term alternations of ecosystems as well as spatiotemporal variation. Any progress measures should include indicators to evaluate ecosystem services related to ecological, economic, social, and political aspects (Renaud et al., 2016).

Community involvement remains a key driver to successful conservation management of natural ecosystems. In addition policy empowerment compensation payments are sometimes required (Rijke et al., 2012). Community awareness and support play a crucial role in preventing or minimizing pollution, degradation, and overexploitation of habitats. Therefore, EcoDRR requires a strong political determination to engage communities with positive commitment during the pre-implementation, implementation, and monitoring stages (Ravindran, 2012).

Overcoming the challenges mentioned here may be beyond the reach of custodians and regulators of ecosystems, such as the communities and governments. Since there is a surge of global concern to reduce disaster risk, with increasing knowledge in ecosystem services, integrated approaches to manage ecosystems will likely emerge in the future.


No place on Earth is free from natural hazards. Increased exposure and vulnerability in communities as well as reduced ability to cope with the impact of natural hazards transforms hazards into disasters. There has been an increase in the frequency, intensity, and magnitude of natural disasters worldwide with a huge death toll and massive destruction of property and the environment. Disasters are destroying the path to sustainable development. Thus, disaster risk reduction activities became a priority in various local and global development agendas, and facing new challenges with sustainable strategies has become an important concern.

As an alternative to traditional disaster management methods, EcoDRR) is increasingly gaining the attention of governments and international agencies. The increased recognition of the benefits of EcoDRR has led some countries to tap nature’s resources and implement programs. These projects have helped to reduce disaster risks and have provided many cobenefits to society by improving communities’ well-being. Although there are challenges to overcome, including various aspects of policy, practice, and attitude, an urgent need exists to promote and invest in EcoDRR methods to explore the fully “free” services of nature. To overcome uncertainties and progress further, innovative mindsets and integrated policy and action solutions are of prime importance.


The author gratefully acknowledges the support received from the University of Colombo.


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