Integrating disaster resilience in ecosystems management
Resilient ecosystems can contribute to disaster risk reduction and recovery
By Janita Gurung
On 22 May, the International Day for Biological Diversity is celebrated throughout the world. This year’s theme is Biodiversity for Sustainable Development, which is consistent with the establishment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of the United Nations Post-2015 Development Agenda. The theme also reflects the relevance of biodiversity in achieving sustainable development.
This year, biodiversity and sustainable development are particularly significant in the Hindu Kush Himalayas as a consequence of the recent natural disaster that affected the region. On 25 April 2015, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake (the Gorkha Earthquake) hit Nepal, followed by another 6.8 magnitude earthquake a little over two weeks later. The tremors of both these earthquakes affected people across the Hindu Kush Himalayas: they were felt as far west as Pakistan, as well as in China, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and India. More than 8,600 lives were lost, more than 16,800 injured, and hundreds of thousands of people were made homeless as a result of these earthquakes.
As affected communities rebuild their lives, biodiversity will play a key role particularly in semi-urban and rural areas. Therefore, emphasis must be placed on ensuring that the rebuilding process results in sustainable development and resilient communities.
Role of biodiversity in disaster recovery
In the immediate aftermath of these earthquakes, search and rescue along with emergency relief were priorities with emphasis on food, water, shelter and medicine. World governments, civil society, and the private sector provided generous support to Nepal during this phase. The recovery phase is, however, a long-term process during which the country will need to avail of its resources – natural, human, social, and financial.
The natural environment that we live in provides us with sources of food, water, shelter, and medicine. In addition to the cereals and vegetables that we cultivate, our forests and high-altitude pastures are sources of several edible plants, including bamboo shoots, fiddlehead ferns, and several fruits such as lapsi (Choerospondias axillaris), amala (Phyllanthus emblica) and walnuts. At least 191 species of non-cultivated edible plants have been identified as non-timber forest products in the Kangchenjunga Landscape, an area of over 25,000 km2 that spreads from eastern Nepal through India and western Bhutan.
Construction of shelters can also use natural resources. Timber from trees is a common building resource, but other non-timber building material including bamboo, cane, and leaves can also be used to build strong homes, schools, and offices. These materials are also used to build fences, in addition to which branches of thorny bushes such as Mahonia make effective fencing material.
Our forests, and particularly our rangelands, are sources of highly effective medicinal plants. These medicinal plants are used to treat several types of ailments including gastro-intestinal disorders, colds, cough and sore throat, musculoskeletal disorders, injuries, skin infections, respiratory system disorders, nutritional disorders, and poisoning. During a disaster-recovery phase, when sanitation and hygiene are issues of special concern, traditional medicines can play an important role in maintaining human health, particularly among communities living in remote areas of the Hindu Kush Himalayas.
Biodiversity also provides affected communities an opportunity to generate income. The sale of items extracted from forests and rangelands – such as food and fuelwood – allows people to earn income in the short term, as well as the long term. Additionally, in the longer term, harvested items can be further processed by community members and linked to markets to generate higher income. For example, in the Kailash Sacred Landscape shared by China, India, and Nepal, local communities are engaged in processing raw items such as allo, chiuree, and nigalo to prepare items of higher value such as fabric, cosmetic items, and wicker items, respectively.
Building resilient communities and ecosystems
Reports after the Gorkha Earthquake indicate that some perennial streams have dried up, while new springs have emerged in other places. Landslides triggered by the earthquake have also changed the landscape – in some cases destroying settlements, such as in Langtang and Ghoda Tabela of Rasuwa District in Central Nepal.
These landscapes will need to recover so that the multiple functions their ecosystems provide are restored once again. Destroyed forests will need to regenerate so that they can provide resources – timber, food, medicine, fodder, fuelwood – to local communities, while also performing unseen functions such as protecting water supplies and stabilizing slopes from further landslides. In this context, both geospatial analysis, as well as ground-truthed data are urgently required for short-term and long-term planning.
Restoring and building resilient ecosystems will contribute in the faster recovery process of local communities as we have already seen from the 8.0 magnitude Sichuan Earthquake that occurred in China in 2008. Building resilient communities is crucial for achieving sustainable development whereby vulnerable groups, particularly women, children, the elderly and the poor, are able to recover from natural disasters.
Lessons for the Hindu Kush Himalayas
The Hindu Kush Himalayan region is highly vulnerable to natural hazards such as earthquakes, landslides, mudflows, debris flows, flash floods, and other water-induced disasters. This year, and in the years ahead, what Nepal does to recover from the Gorkha Earthquake while building resilient communities and ecosystems can provide valuable lessons for other countries and communities across the Hindu Kush Himalayan region.
Janita Gurung is a Biodiversity Conservation and Management Specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).