The world’s 15 most at-risk nations for natural hazards are all coastal, tropical, and developing countries. Each year, extreme weather events negatively impact millions of vulnerable people, infrastructure, and economies. The twin effects of climate change and destruction of coastal habitats continue to dramatically increase the risk of damage to coastal communities.
NGOs and governments are spending billions of dollars in coastal developing countries to construct sea walls, levees, and other barriers. Unlike natural barriers such as mangroves, coral reefs, and wetlands, artificial barriers can be easily destroyed by a single extreme weather event.
But what if we instead used natural barriers to protect coastal communities? A group called Science and Nature for People (SNAP) is exploring how restoring coastal habitats can protect coastal communities and livelihoods, and reduce fatalities and loss of property.
SNAP is a new collaboration among The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS). These partners have formed a Coastal Defenses Working Group within SNAP. The group is made up of scientists and specialists in ecology, engineering, hydrology, and other disciplines.
The mandate of the group is not only to explore how to conserve coastal habitats, but also to implement innovative natural and hybrid solutions that can defend coastal communities. The team has years of experience restoring mangrove forests and coral reefs in Southeast Asia and plans to develop best practices for future work in coastal defense.
Mangrove restoration is not a new idea in Southeast Asia, but projects often lack coordination and long-term planning. That’s why SNAP created an ecological mapping tool called the SNAP Natural Defenses Database. The database is available to the public and has so far mapped 67 examples of natural coastal defenses around the world.
With the launch of the Natural Defenses Database, SNAP hopes to show that coastal habitats can provide considerable protection and exactly where, when, and how well certain habitats work as coastal defenses. Although the database only has 67 examples so far, SNAP will also incorporate projects on beaches and sand dunes in phase two of their work. In this phase, they will also add more information about exposure and risk to storms and sea-level rise.
As the database becomes more complete, it will become a simple and rapid tool for guidance on how coastal habitat restoration may be most effective. Ultimately, SNAP’s goal is to provide concrete lessons and examples that can lead to better policies, more effective field practices, and sustainable economies that protect the environment while reducing risks to livelihoods.
Most importantly, SNAP’s focus is on promoting natural defenses as an alternative to costly artificial defenses as well as conserving the environment in a strategic and sustainable way. Thanks to recent events like Hurricane Katrina in the United States and the Indian Ocean and Japan tsunamis, world leaders are interested in solutions that reduce risk to coastal communities in a cost-effective manner.
Global and local actors are ready and motivated to restore and conserve coastal ecosystems because of the protection they can provide. SNAP believes that now is the time to capitalize on the value of mangroves and coral reefs not just to save the environment, but also to save human lives.