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Vol. 17 No. 4 - October 2011

Environment, Climate Change And Disasters:
Challenges For Natural Resource Management

 By: Anil Kumar Gupta and Mohammad Yunus*

Mother Earth has enough to satisfy the need but not the greed of its children’ said Mahatma Gandhi, proves much relevant in times of recent challenges of climate-change. Environmental changes, be the natural or man-made, are increasing hydro-climatic disasters. These disasters are, for example, floods, drought, cyclone, vegetation fire and pest attacks. Incidences of extreme events like heat wave, cold wave, hailstorm, cloudburst, fog and smog, have become frequent, intense and more uncertain to forecast. Warnings of such disastrous risks have been given by environmental scientists and writers since 70s in 20th century.

Global distribution (1993-2002) indicated 42% of catastrophic disasters occurred in Asia where most people’s life and livelihood directly depend on natural resources. 66% of those affected were the low human development index people. In recent years, 90% of natural disasters worldwide have been related to water and climate; floods account for nearly 70% of the people affected in Asia. During 1991 to 2000, Asia accounted for 83% of the population affected by disasters globally. In India, 62% of net sown area covering 13 states is chronically prone to drought, whereas more than 50 million hectares is prone to various degrees and kinds of flood disasters. 5700 Km long coastlines are prone to cyclone, coastal erosion, salt water intrusion and coastal droughts.

Environment and Disasters

Environmental degradation is the deterioration of the environment through depletion of resources such as air, water and soil; the destruction of ecosystems, habitat and the loss of natural homeostasis. It is defined as any change or disturbance to the environment perceived to be deleterious or undesirable, be it quantitative or qualitative. Disasters are the events of environmental extremes which are inevitable entities of this living world.

Climate-change, land-use and natural resource degradation are known to generate or aggravate disasters especially those of the hydro-meteorological origin. Increasing trend of these disasters like floods, drought, cyclone, pest-attack and fires, world-wide and especially in continents of Asia and Africa is a serious concern for governments and communities. Besides causing new hazards and aggravating precursors of disaster events, degradation of environment increases socio-economic vulnerability. Bioproductivity, livelihoods, water, food and nutrition, sanitation and health, housing, entrepreneurship and economics, are the key components of vulnerability reduction and capacity development.

Disaster events are known for serious impacts on environment affecting natural processes, resources and ecosystems, and thereby creating conditions for secondary or new disasters including complex emergencies, epidemics or conflicts. Environmental sustainability is also compromised during disaster management operations and recovery process due to improper disposal of disaster and relief waste, acute exploitation of natural resources and inappropriate landscape modifications. 

Climate-change Impacts

‘Climate-change’ has been rated by Time magazine survey (2008) as top ranking human-made disaster. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate-change (IPCC) in its 4th Assessment Report released in 2007 have categorically reinforced climate-change impacts in the form of disasters and natural resource challenges. These impacts can be roughly grouped into following two categories:

Environmental impacts:

  • physiological effects on crops, pasture, forests and livestock (quantity, quality);

  • changes in land, soil and water resources (quantity, quality);

  • increased weed and pest challenges;

  • shifts in spatial and temporal distribution of temperature and rainfall;

  • sea level rise, changes to ocean salinity;

  • increased extreme weather events, flooding, drought and fires;

  • sea temperature rise causing fishes to inhabit different ranges.

Socio-economic impacts:

  • decline in yields and production;

  • reduced marginal GDP from agriculture;

  • fluctuations in world market prices;

  • changes in geographical distribution of trade regimes;

  • increased number of people at risk of hunger and food insecurity;

  • migration and civil unrest.

 Natural Resource Degradation

When it is realized that disasters associated with water, climate and vegetation occur most and affect widely, significance of natural resource management for disaster risk management is now being recognized. On the other hand the worst sufferers of these disasters, low human development people including the small farmers, poor, marginalized and dalits are the people directly dependent on natural resources for their health and livelihoods. Land-degradation is a major challenge in India, be it in the mountains, coastal areas of plains, the soil-health has deteriorated drastically and is the leading cause of increasing natural hazards. Large tracts of wastelands in the form of fallow, ravines, saline, alkaline, overburdens, or abandoned sites within forests, rural and other natural areas still remain out of concern to disaster risk managers. Monoculture has increased damage risks and vulnerability. Wetlands have been lost at the rate of around 70% on urban lands and 30-40% in rural and forest areas over the last 40 years. Depletion of surface water bodies and ground water reserves add to the complexity of disaster risks as these not only cause hazards and vulnerability but also alter the local and regional ecology including climatic regimes.

Landscape modifications reducing the entropy have been envisaged as a developmental concern without understanding its implications for ecology, natural resources and disaster risks. Implications of genetic recession and loss of diversity, habitat destruction, and intrusions into the natural systems like catchments, rivers, and coastal areas without understanding their ecological dynamics have aggravated the conditions of new or prevailing risks. Loss of quality in natural resources have caused crisis for livelihood, food and health resources and thereby caused conditions for people’s vulnerability to disaster’s impacts.

Hydro-meteorological Disasters

Hydro-meteorological hazards are the environmental processes or phenomena of atmospheric, hydrological or oceanographic nature, which may cause loss of life or injury, property damage, social and economic disruption, or ecological degradation. These include: floods, debris and mud floods; tropical cyclones, storm surges, thunder/hailstorms, rain and windstorms, blizzards and other severe storms; drought, desertification, wildland fires, temperature extremes, sand or dust storms; permafrost and snow or ice avalanches. Hydro-meteorological hazards can be single, sequential or combined in their origin and effects. During the period 2000 to 2006, 2,163 water-related disasters were reported globally in the EM-DAT database, killing more than 290,000 people, afflicting more than 1.5 billion people and inflicting more than US$422 billion in damages. The United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) warns that unless preventative efforts are stepped up, the number of people vulnerable to flood disasters worldwide is expected to mushroom to two billion by 2050 as a result of climate change, deforestation, rising sea levels and population growth in flood-prone lands.

 Integrated Land and Water Resource Management

Integrated land and water management practices rely on utilizing the ecosystem dynamics of the region for sustaining soil-health and bio-productivity. Ecosystem-based risk management options are often more accessible and affordable to the poor than adaptation interventions based on infrastructure and engineering. It is consistent with community-based approaches to adaptation; can effectively build on local knowledge and needs; and can provide particular consideration to the most vulnerable groups of people, including women, and to the most vulnerable ecosystems. As examples, at the local specific level, these include appropriate agricultural and water management practices, breeding techniques for introduction of drought-tolerant, salt-tolerant, and standing-water tolerant crops and tree species; improved livestock management and fodder management practices.

Institutional framework and legal implications

United Nations agencies including UNEP, UNDP, IUCN, UN-ISDR and UNU Institute of Environment and Human Security, jointly with ADPC, WWF, GFMC, ProAct Network, SEI, and the Council of Europe, have formed a Partnership for Environment and Disaster Risk Reduction (PEDRR) in year 2008 with headquarter at Geneva. UN-OCHA has also setup a joint Environment Unit with UNEP to emphasize environmental aspects of disasters and their management. However, at national levels the initiatives for convergence of the two are yet to be institutionalized. In India, the National Disaster Management Authority is the apex national organization for development of guidelines and plans on various aspects of disaster management, whereas the Ministry of Environment & Forests is the nodal agency for environmental protection dealing with climate-change, forests and habitat conservation, environmental quality, EIA, etc. Various aspects of land-use and natural resources are dealt by different Ministries like Rural Development (Land Resources Deptt.), Water Resources, Agriculture, Earth Sciences, Science & Technology, Biodiversity, etc.

Role of Knowledge Management

The climate-change concerns have brought-in the greater understanding on the role of global, regional and local environmental issues in disaster management (risk assessments, mitigation, early warning and effective response). In many countries, the disaster management has been functional in total separation from the systems that deal environmental protection and natural resource management. However, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, IPCC 4th Assessment Report, Ramasar Convention, Convention on Desertification, and strategic publications of UN-ISDR and IUCN have emphasized environment based disaster management. In India, Disaster Management Act (2005) and the national guidelines on disaster management, national disaster mitigation plans and manuals especially on floods, drought and cyclone, have emphasized environmental routes of disaster reduction.

Government of India has strides in area of environmental data and knowledge promotion with implementation of National Natural Resource Data Management System (NNDRDMS), Environmental Information System (ENVIS), Environmental Statistics Compendium (by Central Statistical Organization), Biodiversity Board, Forest Survey of India, India Meteorological Department, Geological Survey, and initiatives of space technology application. Recent Indo-German Conference on Environmental Knowledge for Disaster Risk Management (2011) at New Delhi released a special volume wherein the noted environmental scientist Prof. M. S. Swaminathan stressed on rural ecosystems approach to disaster risk management and climate-change adaptation. Knowledge of environmental-natural systems and processes is, therefore, key to disaster management and sustainability of natural resources in developing nations like ours.


*School of Environmental Sciences, Baba Saheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, Vidya Vihar, Rae Bareli Road, Lucknow, India. E-mail: mykabdali@yahoo.co.in


This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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