Natural disasters such as floods, droughts, landslides, storms, and coastal floodings occur all over the world and seem to be inevitable. However, it is important to know that bad weather leads to disasters, usually as a result of human decisions: it is often the change of the landscape that makes a weather event devastating. To mitigate the damage caused by natural disasters, more and more environmental organizations are advocating nature-based solutions.
It is the degradation of land and coastal areas that amplifies the effect of adverse weather events. In response to this observation, the United Nations came up with the idea about a decade ago that preserving and restoring natural ecosystems can significantly reduce the damage caused by natural disasters. According to the official definition of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), “nature-based solutions” are “measures for the protection, sustainable management, and restoration of natural or modified ecosystems to address societal challenges directly in an efficient and adaptive manner, while ensuring human well-being and promoting biodiversity.” Under this strategy, three types of actions are implemented: conservation of ecosystems, improvement of their management, and restoration of areas damaged by human activities. In particular, these include flora, fauna, forest and coastal soils, as well as deserts, grasslands, and peatlands. These measures can be applied anywhere in the world, including urban areas.
Wetlands: natural sponges
According to the UN, 90% of all disasters in the world are water-related. Wetlands, with their special vegetation and soil, act like sponges and absorb excess water, preventing flooding during heavy rains. In addition, the water stored in the restored wetlands will replenish the water table and help reduce the risk of drought. The restoration of wetlands has also made it possible to accommodate more species and restore self-cleaning capacity.
Mangroves, as in Sri Lanka, are known for their effects in case of storms, floods, or tsunamis. Their vegetation reduces the force of the waves breaking on the coast and thus slows the rise of water. These mudflats are filled with a number of dense, deep-rooted plants that help to mitigate the effects of the waves.
Roots: stabilize the soil and drain excess water.
Trees with their deep roots help stabilize the soil and prevent landslides. In some countries, the UN helps people build safe and environmentally friendly roads using certain plants whose roots stabilize roads that tend to collapse during heavy rains. Conifers that grow in the mountains are excellent soil stabilizers, but some plants, such as juniper and vetiver, also play the same role thanks to their very deep roots.
Peatlands: essential in the fight against climate change
Peatlands account for only 3% of the world’s land area, but they still play an important role in climate regulation. They can sequester more carbon than any other natural area. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. However, as peatlands deteriorate, are turned over, and overexploited, they become huge sources of carbon, releasing into the atmosphere all that they have stored. That is why Indonesia, the country with the largest peatland area in the world, has recently launched a program to protect these areas.
Nature: a valuable ally
Local wildlife also plays an important role. While some people are aware of the role of coral as a natural barrier to mitigate the devastating effects of tsunamis, few know how important certain marine species are. Parrotfish often crush coral with their powerful beak-like jaws and then dump it in the sand. This sand, in turn, forms a barrier near the shore that softens the impact of the waves. Of course, it is not possible to avoid a tsunami, but we can limit its effects by preserving coastal biodiversity.
In the American Rocky Mountains, plant biodiversity has been shown to be higher in areas visited by free-ranging bison or cattle that benefit from regular grazing: By plowing the soil and releasing some seeds (which only germinate after digestion) in their droppings, bison and cows enrich the vegetation and the entire plant and animal food chain benefits by allowing plants to hold more carbon dioxide in the soil.
Nature-based solutions also save money in the long run as they help avoid the construction of costly and maintenance-intensive infrastructures. The co-benefits of these natural solutions are also numerous, such as the development of tourism interested in discovering the natural space and the well-being that comes from a pleasant and less polluted living environment.
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