By Ishita Jalan.
We live in the age of crisis where countries are being constantly challenged with systemic problems and have very little time to act. COVID-19 global pandemic has shaken the world with its deadly and unpredictable nature. Further challenges have layered on such as loss of economic opportunities to worsen the condition of communities lacking financial security. In such a situation, systems at different scales crush under the existing pressure posed by lack of resources in a poor environment or under the impact of extreme climate events such as cyclones and floods. These challenges are deemed to increase in the future as climate change realizes its full potential. Therefore, this age of crisis makes it inevitable to look for solutions that can address multiple challenges together and focus on building the resilience of the people in a future of uncertainty.
An interdisciplinary pool of knowledge is surfacing as a new paradigm of action against climate change. These are ‘Nature-based Solutions’ (NbS) as the Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) strategy, drawing from the power of nature to act as natural barriers against drastic environmental changes. It focuses on improving ecosystem services through an existing set of practices such as sustainable land management, natural resource management and green infrastructure, thereby creating a renewed school of knowledge. The approach is also found to create new socio-ecological systems where values connecting people with their environment become the focus of solutions1. The designed solutions must be embedded in a local context to achieve the highest results for its beneficiaries. However, the complex and dynamic nature of the relationship between the environment and the people poses a major challenge for the implementers. The adoption of NBS becomes further difficult as communities often exhibit poor confidence in NBS for mitigating disaster risks2.
There is extensive discussion in the literature where case studies have identified the linkages between an NBS strategy’s success and the quality of local community participation. Here are four examples from the Global South presenting different outcomes based on community participation in DRR projects. Failure to impart resilience from climate impacts in low-lying islands of central Philippines3 and unable to receive cooperation from informal settlements in Jakarta for mitigating flood impacts4 are examples where community involvement was not prioritized in the projects. On the other hand, with the method of knowledge co-production, informal local communities were successfully integrated for landslide risk mitigation at the neighbourhood level in Latin America5. In Odisha, the inclusion of women in soil and water conservation helped the region achieve protection against drought and heavy rain6.
In increasing the level of involvement, community inclusion can take four different forms—information dissemination, consultation, active participation, and ownership7. To ensure the highest level of participation from communities, they need to be included from the beginning of the process. This form of inclusion leads to redistribution of power, bringing mutual trust and a shared understanding of risks. People are reconnected to the developmental activities in their surroundings, which directly impact their lives. Also, input from local communities about practical field information can help address data gaps to understand the local environment fully. Further, a close interaction of people with their environment can be an important instrument to ensure continuous monitoring and maintenance as NbS comes with a long timeline of implementation8.
The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction brings focus to the role of local stakeholders and communities in planning measures for disaster management. It also emphasizes the need for addressing underlying risk factors associated with social and economic conditions, especially in developing countries, so that communities are more resilient towards existing and future risks9. The NbS approach reinforces the guidelines of the Sendai Framework in the best-case scenario.
The Nature-based Solutions approach is a ‘no-regrets strategy’1. Apart from the perceived benefits, there are complex relationships between the abiotic and biotic components, which provide unidentified co-benefits. As a result, we obtain an enriched environment that improves rural communities’ livelihoods and improves resource availability and quality in urban areas. Better livelihoods from a healthy environment also point out the self-sustaining economics that can be potentially achieved using NbS. Development projects receive limited funding confined to the implementation and initial operation of the project10. However, NbS needs regular input and management over a long time to achieve the full spectrum of benefits. Therefore, financial instruments for NbS projects can be designed to incorporate the new economics of the strategy to ensure sustainable financial support.
Conventionally, disaster management programs have an explicit component of disaster risk awareness and capacity building for local communities. NBS opens the prospect of ‘learning by doing’, where these solutions become the medium for engagement with the communities5. These solutions are technically simple and, therefore, offer fewer bottlenecks for implementation. Better awareness has a direct relationship with the behavioural response in the community. People consciously use natural resources and also develop conservation measures to protect the environmental quality.
A more vigorous agenda is emerging in the international forum for restoring ecosystems as a strategy against multiple challenges of climate risk. Nature-based solutions offer an opportunity to revive nature from the damages of unsustainable development pathways in the past. Moreover, it is a significant opportunity to redefine the role of the most vulnerable in decision-making and eliminate the existing forms of socioeconomic inequalities woven in the fabric of societies. Therefore, decision-makers need to recentre the focus of sustainable development towards resilient societies through nature-based solutions and make this a starting point for achieving better environmental health and protection against climate extremities.
Ms Ishita Jalan is as a master’s student at the Technical University of Munich (Germany) in Environmental Engineering program.