09/08/2014 10:31 am ET Updated Nov 08, 2014

Natural Defence Against Un-Natural Disaster

Tai Power Seeff via Getty Images

Every year storms, floods, droughts and other extreme events affect hundreds of millions of people around the world, with economic losses estimated at $100 billion. These all-too familiar scenes of loss and destruction are referred to as 'natural disasters'; however, I've come to recognize that this is a stunning misnomer. The phrase implies that nature causes the disaster, when humans are often the main culprits. In fact, rather than being thought of as the cause of disasters, nature should be better appreciated as a critical part of the remedy to them.

Extreme natural events are challenging, powerful, frightening and awe-inspiring. However, the damage done often tends to expose what has been hidden --the slow build-up of unsafe vulnerable conditions created by our human choices.

While natural events trigger disasters, they are rarely the main cause. In fact the opposite; evidence is growing from around the world that nature plays a key role in defending against disasters. For example, I've been reminded through a current investigation into resilience in India that when a 'super cyclone' with an 8m high storm surge struck a low-lying coastal area it destroyed homes, killed 10,000 people and affected millions for years to come. Yet, the communities that were shielded by remnants of once abundant mangroves faired much better because the mangrove forest efficiently absorbed the wave energy of the storm.

Despite the protection that forests, wetlands, coastal vegetation, coral reefs and other habitats provide, in most cases the destruction of the natural environment is often a direct by-product of economic growth and development. Where coastal ecosystems have been ravaged, a storm surge can sweep unhindered across heavily populated land. Expensive sea defenses are sometimes built; and engineered solutions are also important. Yet, left to bear the full force of a storm, every so often, these are over-topped and damaged -- at a minimum requiring expensive repair and upgrade, and at worse leading to enormous loss of life through creating a false sense of security for those living in the 'protected zone.' In brief, short-term ambition can result in increased risk of disaster, ultimately resulting in loss of life and livelihood and even a strike on GDP.

As economic development continues to degrade many of the world's ecosystems, overwhelmingly it is the poor who are most at risk to disaster events. In order to make a livelihood, millions upon millions of marginalized people are prepared to live wherever they can, including on precarious riverbanks, steep and unstable slopes, and exposed deltas. Additionally, whilst occupying unsafe areas, people are often left little choice but to exacerbate their own risk by degrading their surrounding environment further. For example, forests are cut down to sell firewood at a rate that outpaces regeneration.

Here is another irrationality. Man-made climate change is leading to greater intensity and frequency of extreme weather events in many places. While countries struggle to agree fair ways in which carbon emissions can be reduced, forests and peat lands are already absorbing and storing carbon on vast scales. Yet as we destroy such environments in the name of 'progress' we accelerate climate change and therefore increase the risk of the very extreme climate-related events that they could help prevent. Simultaneously, devoid of natural protection, local populations are likely to experience greater exposure to such events.

The protection of ecosystems can bring multiple benefits. As well as mitigating global issues such as climate change, nature reduces the impact an extreme event would otherwise have, and can support local sustainable livelihoods for the poor; which is key to coping with disaster. From a disaster perspective alone a healthy environment is a triple win.

A healthy environment may also have significant economic benefits as a means of reducing disaster losses. For example, wetlands in the United States have been valued at $33,000 per hectare purely for their role in reducing the impacts of Caribbean hurricanes. In the case of New Orleans, economic development prior to Hurricane Katrina had taken place at the expense of losing 4,800 square kilometers of wetlands in the Mississippi Delta, which had formerly dissipated the energy of storms. This would imply $16 billion worth of benefits being wiped out through wetland destruction.

When 'natural disasters' are recognized as signs that human activity has pushed nature beyond sustainable boundaries, avoiding the loss of life that they cause will become the ultimate justification for sustainable business. Organizations such as IUCN, WWF, UNEP, Wetlands International and others already promote how nature protects people and mitigates losses. I believe these efforts to embed ecosystem-based disaster-risk reduction and climate-change adaptation in economic-development decision making must be supported by business leaders and the wider international development community. To this end, The Natural Capital Initiative and the WAVES Partnership are supporting the development of frameworks for business and nations that could help change the way we think about the role of nature.

A new approach to thinking about nature needs to succeed. If a more sustainable development path can be achieved, nature is sure to be a strong ally in a resilient future.

This post is part of a month-long series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with a variety of events being held in September recognizing the threats posed by climate change. Those events include the UN's Climate Summit 2014 (to be held Sept. 23, 2014, at UN headquarters in New York) and Climate Week NYC (Sept. 22-28, 2014, throughout New York City). To see all the posts in the series, read here.