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Environmental Degradation Increases the Risk of Disasters Worldwide

Coastal habitats provide cost effective solutions for hazard mitigation and coral reefs may provide risk reduction benefits to 200 million people around the world


Arlington, VA | October 11, 2012

Environmental degradation is a significant factor that reduces the capacity of societies to deal with disaster risk in many countries around the world. This is the key message of the World Risk Report 2012, presented today in Brussels, Belgium by the German Alliance for Development Works (Alliance), United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) and The Nature Conservancy.

The World Risk Report examines who is at risk from natural disasters, what contributes to this risk and what can be done about it. The record for the decade 2002 to 2011 is alarming: 4,130 disasters, more than a million deaths and an economic loss of at least 1.195 trillion dollars.

The centerpiece of the report, the WorldRiskIndex, developed by UNU-EHS in cooperation with the Alliance, determines the risk of becoming the victim of a disaster as a result of natural hazards for 173 countries throughout the world. The Pacific Island states of Vanuatu and Tonga have the highest disaster risk. Malta and Qatar face the lowest risk worldwide.

The Nature Conservancy was a core partner on this year’s report, because of its focus on the linkages between environmental degradation and disaster risk.

“This report illustrates the powerful role that nature can play in reducing risks to people and property from coastal hazards like storms, erosion and floods. Coral reefs, oyster reefs and mangroves offer flexible, cost-effective, and sustainable first lines of defense, as well as other benefits like healthy fisheries and tourism that sea walls and breakwaters will never provide," said Dr. Michael Beck, Lead Marine Scientist at The Nature Conservancy.

The Conservancy’s Drs. Michael Beck and Christine Shepard, co-authors of the WRR, found that there are 200 million people who may receive risk reduction from coral reefs alone or may have to bear higher costs of disasters if the reefs are degraded. These are people in villages, towns, and cities who live in low, risk prone coastal areas (below 10m elevation) and within 50 km of coral reefs.

Where the most people could benefit from these natural systems is often where their impacts and loss have been the greatest. The countries with the greatest number of at-risk people who may receive risk reduction benefits from reefs are Indonesia and India (> 35 M people each); followed by the Philippines (>20M); China (> 15 M); Brazil, Vietnam, Brazil and the USA (all > 7M).

In addition, more than 20 countries had most of their population (>50%) living in low elevations and near reefs, which includes nations such as the Maldives, Palau, St. Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, Bermuda, Bahamas, and Bahrain.

"The WorldRiskIndex reveals global hotspots for disaster risk in Oceania, Southeast Asia, the southern Sahel and especially in Central America and the Caribbean. In these places a very high threat of natural disasters and climate change meets very vulnerable communities," notes Dr. Joern Birkmann, of UNU-EHS.

The top 15 most at-risk nations are all tropical and coastal where coastal habitats like reefs and mangroves are incredibly important for people’s lives and livelihoods. Reefs, for example, can reduce wave energy approaching coasts by more than 85 percent.

"The new WorldRiskReport gives us a vivid picture of how environmental destruction on a global scale is increasingly becoming a direct threat to human beings as well. Where slopes have been deforested, where protective reefs, mangroves and wetlands have degenerated or even completely disappeared, the forces of nature impact with far higher force on inhabited areas," stated Peter Mucke, director of the Alliance Development Works.

The report comes on the heels of the International Day for Disaster Reduction and when the international community is discussing how to best achieve disaster risk reduction and sustainable development. The report provides valuable arguments for why environmental sustainability should be a cornerstone in risk reduction strategies of countries.

Notes to editors:

• The full World Risk Report, illustrations and maps are available here
• Dr. Michael W. Beck is available for interviews; to set-up an interview contact Geraldine Henrich-Koenis at ghenrich-koenis@tnc.org or by phone at +1-703-314-1137
• To set-up an interview with Peter Mucke, Eberhard Neugebohrn, or Dr. Jörn Birkmann, contact Dr Alice Fišer at fiser@vie.unu.edu or by phone at + 49-228-815-0219


The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org

Contact information

Geraldine Henrich-Koenis
+1 (703) 314-1137
ghenrich-koenis@tnc.org

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