Tropical Cyclone Pam and the importance of healthy ecosystems

01 May 2015 - News Story 

The South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu, a state member of IUCN, confronted the utter devastation of category 5 Tropical Cyclone Pam which tore through the islands a few weeks ago leaving behind almost 90 percent damages to buildings, to agriculture, infrastructure and ecosystems. Wind estimates suggest Port Vila sustained gusts up to 90 mph, while some Vanuatu islands saw gusts of 190 mph. At its peak, experts say gusts were close to 200 mph. This may well be one of the few powerful tropical cyclones anticipated to impact on any island state in the South Pacific.

Rehabilitation has begun. Homes rebuilt. Medical supplies, food rations and water shipped to the island nation. Infrastructure and public utilities reconstructed and property lost will most probably be recovered in the next few months. Food crops and agricultural produce damaged in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Pam will be planted. The impacts on ecosystem services are yet to be fully accounted for yet highlights the belief that states particularly in Oceania will need to begin to consider the critical role of ecosystems in our island communities.

Ecosystems provide key services such as flood regulation, slope stabilization and protection from storm surges. They play an essential role in preventing disasters and reducing risks as well as in post disaster responses. How? Clean water, firewood and fibre are some examples of immediate requirements on islands and are provided by ecosystems.

IUCN’s position paper on Disaster Risk Reduction proposes that ecosystem management has a key role in each phase of the disaster management cycle and can be implemented as nature based solutions.

Vanuatu is still counting its losses. And while economic value is easily placed on the loss of infrastructure the loss to ecosystems may take longer to appraise. There is no doubt, Pam was far the most destructive cyclone Vanuatu has ever experienced and it may not be the last. Media reports and analysis of the situation particularly on Efate, Erromango and Tanna have documented the immense devastation from homes stripped of their roofs or flattened by very powerful winds and torrential rain to broken poles and lines, fallen trees and debris.

Stakeholders, development partners and the government officials have begun to map how to support the Government of Vanuatu in developing and preparing for the future. Nature-based solutions for disaster risk reduction as cost-effective measures are important to consider. The approach is innovative. Nature based solutions are neither complex nor expensive. Evidence demonstrates that such measures not only reduce risks through strengthening preparedness, but can also be a cost-effective and functional means to address restoration and recovery.

Nature based solutions for disaster risk reduction is a “no regrets” option. There is a growing knowledge base that demonstrates how potential damage created by storm surges, flooding and landslides can significantly be reduced by maintaining and where possible restoring ecosystems to act as buffers. The same investments in ecosystems and "natural infrastructure" have socioeconomic benefits which directly support more resilient women and men in communities and livelihoods. In Vietnam, the costs of mangrove restoration (USD 1.1 million) was significantly outweighed by the benefits of avoiding the annual costs associated with dyke maintenance (USD 7.3 million) and strengthening the livelihoods of 7,500 households in coastal areas.

The mid-term review of the Hyogo Framework for Action indicated that progress on Priority four on reducing underlying risks which includes ecosystem degradation was ‘very limited’. Concerns have been raised on whether Priority 4 will be the prime obstacle to achieving the Hyogo Framework for Action outcomes and whether Governments have the capacities needed to control externalities and processes, especially in development planning. Until now, much emphasis has been put on ecosystems degradation as a factor exacerbating risk and vulnerability.

The need to strengthen the sustainable use and management of ecosystems and implement integrated environmental and natural resource management approaches that contribute to disaster risk reduction is critical. The fundamental role nature plays before, during and after disasters, in the most influential global DRR framework.

Pam’s tracks are still visible. She has taught us many lessons. If anything she has made us realise that the degradation of ecosystem reduces the variety of ecosystem services which forces our people to rely on fewer natural services and products. As rehabilitation continues in Vanuatu the important message is in the protection, sustainable use and restoration of ecosystems as essential to reducing disaster risks, enhancing community resilience and promoting sustainable development.