NCEAS Project 12678

SNAP: Integrating natural defenses into coastal disaster risk reduction

  • Michael W. Beck
  • Jane Carter Ingram

ActivityDatesFurther Information
Working Group28th—30th October 2013Participant List  
Working Group22nd—24th April 2014Participant List  

The world’s coastal zones are changing rapidly and their rate of change is predicted to increase from coastal development and climate change; both of which will dramatically increase risks of catastrophic damage to coastal communities. Already, the proportion of the world’s GDP annually exposed to tropical cyclones has increased from 3.6 % in the 1970s to 4.3 % in the first decade of the 2000s (UNISDR 2011). In 2011, insured losses from natural disasters (especially coastal and riverine hazards) reached an all-time high and impacts will continue to worsen with continued climate change. Looking globally at socio-economic vulnerability to all natural hazards (e.g., earthquakes, fires, storms), the top 15 most at-risk nations are all coastal, tropical and developing nations (World Risk Report 2012). Erosion, inundation and extreme weather events affect hundreds of millions of vulnerable people, important infrastructure, tourism, and trade—with significant losses to national economies and major impacts on human suffering. Ecosystem degradation raises these risks by further exposing communities and assets to more waves, winds and water. Coastal and marine habitats, particularly coral reefs and wetlands, are at the front line of many of these changes and are increasingly lost and degraded. Global losses of coastal habitats are as high as 85% for oyster reefs; 30-50% for wetlands; and approximately 20% for coral reefs. Often the loss of these habitats is greatest around population centers. That is, where the most people could benefit from these ecosystems is often where their impacts and loss have been the greatest. Billions of dollars are moving to reduce risks from disasters and climate change, creating both threats and opportunities for natural systems. Total Fast Start Finance commitments under the UNFCCC (through 2012) include roughly $3 billion for climate adaptation assistance. In the US, FEMA spends $500 million/year to reduce flooding hazards. Middle income countries such as Colombia, Brazil and China are making multibillion dollar investments to address risks of flooding and other disasters exacerbated by climate change. Cities are also mobilizing quickly: New York, for example, have robust climate adaptation plans and is working to address climate impacts with other mega-cities via the C40 effort. Most these funds are destined for the creation of “grey infrastructure” such as seawalls, which will further degrade coastal ecosystems, and may not be cost effective for risk reduction when compared to more natural and hybrid alternatives. Because of the wave of global science following Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, decision-makers (e.g., post-Sandy), recognize that coastal habitats have some role to play in risk reduction. Those decision-makers now are rightly asking (i) How cost-effective are natural ecosystems for coastal defense? (ii) Where and how should we restore these natural defenses? (iii) How do we create incentives to reduce risks by conserving coastal habitats? We will constitute a SNAP Working Group, composed of leaders from coastal engineering, conservation, ecology, aid and development, to address these problems head-on. We will (a) Provide evidence on when, where and how investments in natural defenses are cost-effective; (b) Develop practical guidance & tools for decision-makers & practitioners to implement solutions; (c) Identify policy and financial incentives that lead to reduced risks for people and nature. To enhance the pathways to impact and opportunities for practical implementation, we will also convene a Resource User Group, to test and provide feedback about the research insights and tools developed by the SNAP Working Group. We will also establish a SNAP Rapid Recovery team to be well prepared for the predictable likelihood that a tropical cyclone will hit a core project site in September/October 2015. After every disaster, there is a scramble to identify new development and restoration policies and practices that help in the recovery of the infrastructure and environment. These restoration and recovery decisions get made very quickly (often in the first 3-16 weeks post-storm), and there is an urgent demand for evidence-based guidance in the development of sensible policies and practices. Our programs and leaders (e.g., Tercek) have been asked to help write and direct these policies and practices on very tight timelines. Decades of intractable development policies can be turned on their head and billions of dollars are unleashed post-event – much of which could be better directed for risk reduction and conservation. This project is supported by the Science for Nature and People (SNAP) initiative, generously funded through founding grants by Shirley and Harry Hagey, Steve and Roberta Denning, Ward W. Woods, Jr., Seth Neiman, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.