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What Do Forests Have to Do with Disaster Risk Management? Q&A with Annegien Tijssen

PROFOR spoke with Disaster Risk Management Specialist Annegien Tijssen about her work incorporating knowledge on forests towards minimizing the impacts of natural disasters. 

Why is Disaster Risk Management (DRM) important when it comes to sustainable development? 
We know from previous experiences that natural disasters can wipe out a huge part of countries’ development gains. It makes sense to invest not only in the development of economies, but to also be prepared to prevent or reduce the impact of future disasters, to make communities more resilient.

How can forests help reduce the impacts of natural disasters?
Over the last decade, lots of research has been done on the use of nature-based solutions for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. Evidence shows that nature-based solutions or ecosystem approaches can be effective in reducing the impact of natural disasters, while they often provide co-benefits for the environment and communities, which conventional solutions like gray infrastructure don’t provide. Building a dam or levy, for example, will only create a limited amount of additional employment in the construction, maintenance and operation of the dam – a forest, however, can provide other long-term additional benefits such as livelihood services in the form of food and building materials provision to communities.

Mangroves are a good example of how forests can contribute to DRM. When properly located and maintained, mangrove forests can reduce storm surge, by lessening the energy of waves, and reduce the damage caused by potential coastal flooding. In some cases, gray infrastructure may be cheaper or more appropriate because forests need a lot of physical area in order to be effective in flood reduction. However, if enough space is available, mangroves may well be cheaper than sea walls, which are expensive in construction and maintenance. Also, sea walls won’t keep up with sea level rise, whereas mangroves do due to sedimentation.

Another example is deforestation, which plays a big role in landslides: hills can become unstable, especially with heavy rains or when earthquakes occur.  Forests also play a big role in containing water, which may reduce the impact of heavy rains downstream.

Very often we see that the best solution is a combination of nature-based solutions and conventional approaches, such as mangroves with an embankment behind, where the embankment doesn’t need to be as high as it would be without the mangroves. Hybrid solutions can be very effective.

Given these links between the DRM and Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) sectors, how often do they collaborate?
At the moment, there is limited to no collaboration between the two sectors. While developing the PROFOR-activity on Forests and DRM, we discovered that very often the DRM and ENR Global Practices at the World Bank don’t even speak the same language. We in DRM often approach the issues from a more technical and engineering point of view with limited focus on nature based solutions, whereas the ENR Global Practice has an in-depth knowledge of ecosystems, but limited experience on disaster risk management. We are aiming to improve this by working together and sharing our knowledge.

DRM is by definition a very multi-sectoral approach. For instance, in Serbia we are setting up a national DRM program that cuts across areas like education, energy, infrastructure and health, to avoid incidents like a major flood in 2014 that inundated an open pit mine. But until now we have not included forestry structurally in our work.

What value-added will the new PROFOR-activity on Forests and DRM provide?
Currently, we don’t use forest management as a tool for risk reduction. With this new activity, we are aiming to change that. This activity is still a work in progress, but will first involve reviewing existing knowledge on the role of forests in identifying and reducing risk. For example, can we use information on forest cover to quickly identify landslide-prone areas, instead of conducting full risk assessments, which are expensive and time consuming? At the same time, it makes sense, from a DRM perspective, to protect forests from for example wild fires if these forests can help reduce the very costly impacts of disasters. Next, we will build a knowledge management system to disseminate information on this topic, and conduct pilots to fill in any gaps. Pilot countries could be coastal, where storm surge is an issue, or in mountainous regions, where there is the threat of torrential flooding and landslides.

Both the ENR and DRM Global Practices are working together on this, and there is scope for more collaboration. With PROFOR’s help, we can continue to bridge the distance between these sectors. 

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