Promoting livelihoods through nature-based disaster risk reduction in India


Publisher: UNEP
Published: 18 Oct,2019

Every year on 13 October, the world marks the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction. The UN Environment Programme is working with various UN agencies, governments, non-governmental organizations and specialized institutes to significantly reduce the risk of disaster in order build safer and more resilient communities.

For two consecutive years, the south Indian State of Kerala has experienced heavy flooding which has affected one sixth of its population—about 5.6 million people. The disaster also dealt a significant financial blow as it washed away nearly 2.6 per cent of the state’s gross domestic product.

Nearly 14.8 per cent of the state is prone to flooding and this figure is as high as 50 per cent for certain districts. Landslides are also a major hazard, and more than half of the state’s land area is moderately to severely susceptible to drought.

Between 1 June and 19 August 2018, Kerala received abnormally high rainfall, about 42 per cent above normal, resulting in the worst-ever floods since 1924, which affected almost 5.4 million people.

After the 2018 floods, the Kerala State government initiated the Rebuild Kerala Development Programme to not only rebuild areas impacted by the flood but also to build a more resilient, green, inclusive and vibrant Kerala State.

Furthermore, the Indian government’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme was also critical in the reconstruction of Kerala. It guarantees 100 days of work per family and it incorporates, among other components, conservation activities as well as flood and drought management as a means of generating employment.

“The scheme has provided women from low-income rural households with a viable livelihood option. They are heavily involved in the conservation of water and soil. Empowering them through their local knowledge of nature-based solutions for disaster risk reduction will prove beneficial as they can also bring forward ideas for works to be implemented in their locality,” says Reshma Gopi, a civil engineer involved in supervising the scheme’s work in the state.

However, Kerala’s challenges in the face of extreme weather events and resultant disasters linked to natural hazards are not unique. Over the past decade, disasters linked to natural hazards worldwide have exacted a significant toll on human lives, livelihoods, assets and economies.

Communities in the state’s Alappuzha District have been involved in river restoration to minimize the impact of floods. Credit: Karen Sudmeier-Rieux/UNEP

According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, the United States has sustained 254 weather and climate disaster events since 1980 where overall damages or costs reached or exceeded 1 billion dollars—including consumer price index adjustment to 2019. The total cost of these 254 events is estimated to have exceeded US$1,700 billion dollars.

In October 2018, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction released a report which highlighted the staggering financial impact of climate-related disasters. In the period between 1998 and 2017, disaster-hit countries reported direct economic losses of US$2,908 billion, of which climate-related disasters accounted for US$2,245 billion, or 77 per cent of the total.

Cognizant of these challenges, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) helped establish in 2008 the Partnership for Environment and Disaster Risk Reduction, a global alliance of UN agencies, non-governmental organizations and specialized institutes whose secretariat is hosted in UNEP’s Geneva-based Crisis Management Branch.

The partnership seeks to promote and scale-up implementation of ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction and ensure it is mainstreamed in development planning at global, national and local levels, in line with the Hyogo Framework for Action. The framework seeks to explain, describe and detail the work that is required from all different sectors and actors to reduce disaster losses.

In January 2019, UNEP also launched a three-year project, “Up-scaling community-based resilience through ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction” to scale-up ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction interventions and promote their large-scale implementation in various countries which include Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Indonesia and Uganda.

The project, funded by the European Commission, aims to develop different models for demonstrating large-scale implementation of ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction, which advance implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Sustainable Development Agenda.

In India, its focus is on developing capacity to undertake ecosystem restoration as part of the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guaranteed Scheme, a nation-wide programme, which employs 2.6 million women in Kerala.

The “Up-scaling ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction project” emphasizes the important role that women have as stewards of natural resources and of risk by ensuring that women are trained and empowered in their roles as team leaders. This topic was also highlighted at a recent partnership event highlighting the nexus between environment, gender and disasters. At this event, the partnership also launched a new source book on ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction: “Disasters and Ecosystems: Resilience in a Changing Climate”, with a special chapter on gender and a gender checklist for project managers.

Tea plantations in Kerala prevent hillside soil erosion and support livelihoods. Credit: Karen Sudmeier-Rieux/UNEP

“Disasters linked to recurring and extreme hazard events such as floods, droughts, heat waves, tropical cyclones, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, repeatedly undermine local and national development efforts to support livelihoods and promote economic growth,” says Marisol Estrella coordinator of UNEP’s ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction work.

In Kerala, the project will also develop training modules, a handbook and training on ecosystem restoration for disaster risk reduction targeting various local government staff and elected officials. This will be implemented in partnership with the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority and the Kerala Institute of Local Administration.

“Healthy and well-managed ecosystems can serve as natural infrastructure to prevent hazards or buffer people and their productive assets from hazard impacts. They can also support community resilience by providing for basic needs, such as food, shelter and water before, during and after hazard events,” adds Estrella.

In 1989, the UN General Assembly designated 13 October, as the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction to promote a global culture of risk-awareness and disaster reduction.

In March 2015, UN Member States adopted the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, which for the first time recognized sustainable ecosystem management as a priority for disaster risk reduction.

For further information, please contact Karen Sudmeier-Rieux or Marisol Estrella at the Crisis Management Branch, UN Environment Programme.

Learn more about the UN Environment Programme’s work and the environmental causes and consequences of disasters and conflicts.


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