Ecosystem Disaster Risk Reduction

I have recently been following a Massive Open Online Course run by iversity on Disasters and Ecosystems: Resilience in a Changing World. After completing the Leadership track course, I thought I would share some of the concepts and case studies with you all before I begin the Expert track course.


What is it?

Ecosystem Disaster Risk Reduction or ‘Eco-DRR’ involves sustainable management of ecosystems and disaster risk reduction. Its aim is to use green (think environmental) rather than grey (think concrete) options to reduce disaster risk.

Ecosystems can be used for disaster risk reduction as they can address all three parts of the Risk equation:

(Risk = Hazard x Exposure x Vulnerability)

Hazard: ecosystems can prevent or mitigate the hazard. For example, the protection forests in mountainous areas of Switzerland decrease the risk of avalanches, landslides and rockfalls. Over 50% of forests in Switzerland are protection forests. These were planted in the 1980s to protect against landslides, rockfalls, and avalanches. They are very effective at protecting human assets at the base of mountains and in valleys.


Exposure: ecosystems can provide natural buffers against hazards. For example, sand dunes are fantastic natural buffers against hurricanes. After Hurricane Sandy, there was a clear difference in the destruction experienced by communities on the coast with healthy sand dunes, vegetation and wetlands, and the communities where the natural sand dunes had been removed. After Hurricane Sandy, the US government has spent US$ 40 million in buying back homes affected by Hurricane Sandy to create green spaces for coastal buffer zones.

Vulnerability: ecosystems can supply livelihoods before, during and after disasters. For example, in Orissa, India, healthy wetlands regulate flood waters and at the same time provide fishing opportunities and farming benefits.



What are the benefits?

The benefits of Eco-DRR are many; there are social, economic, and environmental benefits as well as decreasing disaster risk. Eco-DRR presents benefits all around. For example, in South Africa the IUCN Working for Water project has created jobs, helped water production, flood risk management, and biodiversity conservation.


Human losses as a result of natural disasters are decreasing on a global scale, but economic losses are increasing. This has implications on development progress of the less developed countries which are often most susceptible and vulnerable to disasters. By adopting Eco-DRR projects, multiple benefits to the economy and social structure of a community will be experienced, as well as increasing the ability of communities to cope with disasters.

Cities are and will become a huge risk in the future, particularly from flooding. Green areas within cities can increase infiltration rates of rainfall and the storage capacity in cities to decrease flood risks. The green areas will also provide multiple social benefits.

Eco-DRR is cost-effective compared to grey infrastructure options for DRR. Grey infrastructure is costly and sometimes fails: for example, levees broke in Louisiana due to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the 2011 Japan tsunami flowed over the sea walls. Unfortunately, there are only a few examples where green vs. grey measures have been directly compared.

The multi-sector benefits of Eco-DRR is a big advantage because often people who are at risk of natural hazards and most vulnerable are less worried about disasters (seen as something that ‘might’ happen in the future) than about daily hazards (such as making enough money to eat, and maintenance of their livelihood). They can therefore be less engaged and invested in DRR schemes as a result. By addressing their livelihood, social, and economic concerns (and involving them in the process), DRR can occur in parallel.


What are the drawbacks?

Eco-DRR is widely considered a ‘No Regrets’ option.


What are the barriers to Eco-DRR?

From what I have seen so far, there do not appear to be any drawbacks to Eco-DRR, however, there are potential barriers to Eco-DRR.

Mathematical calculation of the benefits from Eco-DRR is not currently available. Also, widespread guidance is not available for green or bio-engineering. On the other hand, hard engineering benefits are mathematically calculable, have been around for a long time, and have national policies for guidance.



Eco-DRR can not only provide benefits to other sectors (e.g. social and economic), but can also provide and integrate well into a more sustainable and holistic approach to disaster ‘problem solving’. For example, Sikles, Nepal, was experiencing more frequent landslides due to climate change affecting rainfall patterns. The villagers in this remote mountainous region have invested in several schemes to address this. Trees have been planted to protect houses against landslides, which also provide a source of timber and fuel for the locals. Ecosystem conservation is integrated into the education system for all school children. Hydroelectric power from clear mountain streams provides each household with consistent, clean energy, reducing the need to cut timber for fuel. Efficient and smokeless cook stoves also reduce fuel consumption. By tackling the issue from multiple directions, and using Eco-DRR, the schemes are more sustainable and therefore more successful.


Last thoughts

From what I have seen and read so far, Eco-DRR seems to be a great approach to tackling disaster and climate change issues affecting our world today, particularly by tackling all three parts of the Risk equation, and by being of benefit to multiple sectors. It helps those at risk and vulnerable to disasters, and at the same time progresses their development and ability to cope. Not just for the chance of a disaster occurring in the future, but for their day-to-day struggle and survival.


In January 2011, Rio de Janeiro experienced severe flooding and landslides, killing 900 people. There are now efforts to restore and protect forests which were over-exploited by agriculture and urbanisation.

Coral reefs and sea grasses provide 40% improved coastal protection against beach erosion and storm surges in Jamaica.


After Typhoon Yolanda, the Philippine government has invested US$ 8 million towards mangrove rehabilitation.


In Sri Lanka the 2004 tsunami did not injure anyone at the Yala Park ecosystem resort because the dune system protected the resort, which was also built on stilts. Further down the coast, at a resort where the dunes had been removed, the tsunami killed 20 people.

Empowerment and Education Saves Lives: Tendenko in Kamaishi

The 11th March 2011 tsunami in Japan caused widespread devastation and human casualties. The losses as a result of the event will be felt through the generations. But there are always lessons we can learn from such a tragic occurrence. In a coastal community in the Iwate Prefecture, the majority of school-age children survived. The survival rate seems miraculous in the face of so much devastation. The survival of the children is attributed to a concept taught to them through an education scheme. The term is tendenko.


In Japan family bonds are very strong, which can become a problem during a disaster situation. During the 1896 Sanriku earthquake, family members tried to help each other but ended up failing to escape from the tsunami that destroyed the entire region. In the Taro District (then Tarocho) of Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, only 36 of the town’s 1,859 residents survived the Meiji era (1868-1912) catastrophe. Family bonds were causing people to delay evacuation after an earthquake because they were gathering to check family members were ok before evacuating. In a earthquake-tsunami situation, this is incredibly dangerous as every minute to get to higher ground to escape a tsunami counts. Since 2005, the Kamaishi city government has invited disaster management education experts to offer advice to combat this phenomenon.

“Tendenko is the wisdom based on trust within families. It has a very deep meaning.” – Prof. Katada

An education program for schoolchildren led by Professor Toshitaka Katada from Gunma University Graduate School has been run since 2005 in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. Kamaishi schools conduct disaster drills to go uphill, teach tsunami velocity calculation methods in math class and discuss tsunami experiences during ethics lessons. The schools also encourage students to look for higher ground where they can evacuate on foot, and include evacuation routes in a disaster management map. Among the lessons’ important points was tendenko; a word coined from the city’s long history of repeatedly being hit by tsunami. The term means to “go uphill independently at the time of tsunami caring only for your own safety, not thinking of anyone else, even your family”. The term tendenko was one that had fallen from modern use. The idea is one of self-sufficiency and familial trust. Each member of the family must trust that the other members are evacuating to safety ahead of a tsunami. This stops people from trying to check on each other in geographically distant locations, and increases their chance and ability to escape the tsunami wave. The idea also fosters a sense of camaraderie and mutual aid for those evacuating in the same location.

“You might feel bad escaping tsunami alone. However, trying to confirm families’ safety and whereabouts is the most dangerous thing one can do in such a situation. It’s important that you mutually believe that ‘They must’ve evacuated somewhere,'” – Prof. Katada

The casualty toll for Kamaishi was more than 1,200 in total. Of the 2,900 primary and secondary school children in Kamaishi, only five children who were off sick from school or who had left early were confirmed dead as a result of the March 2011 tsunami. This is a phenomenal survival rate. Of the children’s parents, only 40 were killed, which suggests the message and lesson of tendenko had been passed from child to parent. School children were seen to be holding the hands of the younger students as they ran uphill to evacuate in advance of the tsunami. At one of the middle schools, the announcement system malfunctioned right after the earthquake and become unable to broadcast evacuation calls. However, students quickly left the building and gym as they had practiced and escaped uphill. Without the concept of tendenko, the schoolchildren would have been more at risk, stopping to gather outside school to be led by teachers, or returning home to wait for parent’s instructions. The loss could have been much greater in Kamaishi.

The case of Kamaishi during the March 2011 tsunami is one that teaches us the important role education can play in disaster risk reduction. Empowerment of people who are likely to be affected by disasters is key to survival. If they expect to be told what to do and where to go by official lines of communication during an event, it can lead to unnecessary casualties. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, communication lines are very likely to be broken or unavailable. People who are key to helping or directing evacuation will also have been exposed to the disaster and may be unable to respond or fulfil their official role. In this case, it is vital that people know to take action, and know what that action is; this cuts down on the time spent making decisions in a stressful situation. The more self-reliant they are, the more likely they will be able to respond appropriately to the challenges they may face. This does not mean we need to act selfishly – helping others nearby to get to safety is a common occurrence in disasters (more on this in another blog post). Kamaishi and tendenko can be taken as a positive example of the benefits of education and empowerment in disasters.

“I’ve repeatedly told children in class that we might experience tsunami larger than ever expected. It’s almost a miracle that this many children were saved. I’m proud of the children for making [lifesaving] decisions on their own.” – Prof. Katada

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When A Disaster Strikes – And Why

I recently read Amanda Ripley’s book “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When A Disaster Strikes – And Why”. The book explores some of recent history’s disasters and human responses to them. Ripley investigates reports on the incidents, conducts interviews with those who survived the events, and consults leading brain scientists, trauma psychologists, and other disaster experts to try to untangle the common human responses to disasters, in an effort to learn from the past.

She finds that rapid response to disaster situations are rare, and often a result of pre-programming or preparation on the individual’s part. Ripley identifies three main stages of the “survival arc” we all go through in responding to mortal peril: denial, deliberation and the “decisive moment”. The three stages do not necessarily follow a “1-2-3 and it’s over” format; during a disaster situation a person is likely to go through various stages, doubling back and looping round as new challenges are faced. I will go into more detail about these stages in other blog posts, but here I will give a general overview of the main points.


1. Denial

This is the stage where the brain freezes, unable to come to terms with what it is experiencing; it is in shock. Ripley looks at the cases of the World Trade Centre and Katrina striking New Orleans. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, many people delayed evacuating, staying at their desk and calling relatives to find out what had happened. During Hurricane Katrina, many people did not evacuate (for a variety of reasons); this was often because they did not think it would be as devastating as it turned out to be. The brain tries to deny what is happening by either thinking “this can’t be happening to me” if the experience is new, or “this can’t be happening again” if they have had a similar experience. How long we delay depends largely on our perception of risk.

2. Deliberation

The deliberation phase generally comes after our brains have gotten over the initial shock, realising something bad is happening. However, at this stage, we do not know what to do about it and are unable to make a decision. Our cognitive thinking and reasoning are compromised at this stage by fear, meaning decisions are harder to make. Fear can be a huge stimulant in responding to disasters, giving a dump of adrenaline to be able to “flee” the source of danger. However, it also can have side effects which can hamper decisions, such as narrowing of vision/loss of hearing, or can even cause you to “freeze”.

3. The Decisive Moment

The third stage comes after the delay and deliberation – we accept we are in danger, a decision has been made and now we take action based on that decision. The exception to the rule is “panic”, which is relatively rare in disaster situations according to Rebecca Solnit’s “A Paradise Built In Hell”, despite what many Hollywood movies tend to portray. Ripley explores how panics start and what it feels like to be caught in one. She investigates examples of heroism as a response to disasters, and examines why some people perform heroic acts (the exception rather than the rule).


Finally, Ripley brings all the research and case studies together to explore what we can learn from these disasters and survivors’ experiences. They key point I took from this was preparation, especially planning contingencies, and practising increased the chances of survival. By practising escape procedures and evacuation protocols – by physically going through the motion when it is still safe – your survival rates increase. This gets rid of the deliberation phase of the survival arc – you do not need to make complex cost-benefit analysis decisions during the moment when your body and mind are being paralysed by fear. You have trained your body to respond (evacuate through designated route) to a stimulus (simulated disaster) previously, and so in response to a real stimulus (disaster), your body already pre-programmed to respond in kind.

The book was well-written and engaging. Whilst not dealing solely with natural hazard-related phenomena, the lessons learned from human responses to mortal peril are transferable. I would recommend this book not only to those in the disaster research/academic field, but also to those with a general interest in disasters/human behaviour. It was easy to read and interesting. Despite the topic (disasters are not exactly cheery), I did find myself enjoying it.