Humanitarian Action

Nature-based solutions can transform 21st-century humanitarianism

A worker plants trees at the mangrove plantation in Thailand.

A worker plants trees at a mangrove plantation in Thailand. Image: Reuters/Sukree Sukpla

Nena Stoiljkovic
Undersecretary-General for Global Relations, Diplomacy and Digitalization, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)
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  • Nature-based solutions are required for humanitarian support in an era of climate crisis.
  • As well as bolstering environmental protections, they bring economic and social benefits.
  • To take nature-based solutions to scale, humanitarian organizations must partner with environmental bodies and the private sector.

Today’s climate and environmental crises threaten the survival of humanity. Climate change and the extent of the degradation of the natural world are causing more frequent and protracted humanitarian crises. Between 2010-2019, weather-related disasters caused the death of 410,000 people, and in 2021 displaced 22.3 million people. By 2030, 150 million people a year could need humanitarian assistance due to floods, droughts and storms. By 2050, this is expected to rise to 200 million people annually.

Reducing disaster risk and providing humanitarian assistance has traditionally been the realm of humanitarian organizations, supported by governments. Their focus has been on saving lives and alleviating human suffering by providing food, water, shelter and basic health support to people affected by crises.

Yet the extent of the current climate crisis requires a whole-of-society approach and one that is more integrated – moving beyond reactive responses to addressing root causes, including environmental degradation. Protecting, sustainably managing and restoring nature, known as nature-based solutions, can reduce disaster risk, save lives and improve livelihoods.

To pick just one, the protection of coastal wetlands has the potential to reduce wave height by as much as 71%, which means significant disaster-risk reduction potential. A report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) indicates that implementing nature-based solutions could save developing countries at least $104 billion by 2030 and $393 billion by 2050, by reducing the intensity of climate change and weather-related hazards by at least 26%.

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This is why organizations such as the IFRC are scaling up such approaches at community level to ensure sustainability and impact over the long term. To catalyze action and ensure that nature-based solutions reach first/last mile communities, IFRC has included them as a priority in its Global Climate Resilience Platform. The platform aims to raise CHF1 billion (Swiss francs) in finance over five years and support at least 500 million people to increase their resilience to the impacts of climate change in the 100 most climate-vulnerable countries.

What do community-based nature-based solutions look like on the ground? Between 1994-2013, the Vietnamese Red Cross, together with communities along the Vietnamese coast, planted and protected mangroves covering an estimated 9,000 hectares. An impact evaluation of the project estimated the effects to be around $53 million in protective benefits, over $13 million in economic benefits, and around $82 million in ecological benefits, which are the hardest to estimate.

Protecting and restoring nature, unlike hard infrastructure such as sea walls and dykes, brings more to people than just protection. nature-based solutions provide food, livelihoods and other important benefits such as carbon sequestration. Many of these effects are particularly relevant in fragile and vulnerable contexts, where people face food insecurity, poor nutrition, and lack water, sanitation, hygiene and health services. The Kenyan Red Cross, for example, has supported the creation of green belts, lines of indigenous trees interspersed with fruit trees, in Dadaab refugee camp to reduce exposure of the local population to dust and respiratory diseases, while increasing food security.

In order to take such innovative nature-based solutions approaches to scale, the IFRC, the largest humanitarian network, is partnering with the largest environmental organizations, including WWF, the Nature Conservancy and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, to ensure global reach. These uncommon partnerships have been recognized as essential to sustainably saving lives and improving livelihoods, bringing together not only knowledge of effective land restoration and protection, but also a rights-based, people-centred, do-no-harm approach.

Such an approach to nature-based solutions aims to:

  • Uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities, including the right to access, own and benefit from natural resources
  • Support displaced communities to access land tenure and sustainable livelihoods
  • Use participatory and community-led approaches that are sustainable

The private sector is also increasingly realising the co-benefits of protecting and restoring nature and is playing a key role in driving innovative nature-based solutions through the use of insurance, for example. Insurance companies working hand in hand with organizations such as the Nature Conservancy have started to develop insurance policies as an innovative way to finance ecosystem restoration and defend coastal communities.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about nature?

Saving nature makes sense economically and ecologically. Furthermore, when nature-based solutions are undertaken in partnership with communities, local stakeholders and indigenous peoples through rights-based and people-centred approaches, they can also help us achieve our humanitarian imperative: to save lives and alleviate human suffering.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Humanitarian ActionClimate and NatureDavos Agenda
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