Man and boy sit together on rubble
Zimbabwe post-Cyclone Idai, 2019 | Credit: Ezra Millstein for Mercy Corps

On the Frontlines of Climate and Environmental Collapse: Disaster Risk Reduction Must Evolve

By Sarah Henly-Shepard, Ali Blumenstock
The current global pandemic from COVID-19 is a potent, pressing example of why the international community must focus more on preparedness and risk analysis for a multitude of disasters. Disasters, from floods to droughts to heightened risks of conflict, are increasing in frequency and intensity due to climate change, environmental degradation, and social tensions. As such, a priority for all humanitarian and development programs and policies should be to ensure a more holistic approach to disaster risk reduction (DRR), by ensuring the integration of climate and environmental considerations.
“With climate change and extreme weather making the world more dangerous, we need to prioritize DRR,” says Sarah Henly-Shepard, a Senior Advisor with the Mercy Corps Environment Technical Support Unit and lead author of “Resilience in Action Technical Brief: Climate and Ecosystem-Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction.”
At all levels, from international organizations to communities and practitioners on the frontlines, to policymakers and researchers, the call to action is to understand and address climate and environmental risks through holistic DRR that promotes resilience-building of social, economic, and environmental systems. However, some frameworks for DRR are more effective than others at addressing the climate crisis and environmental degradation.
“Although some resilience frameworks make the connections between climate, environment, and DRR, they often focus more on program assessment instead of program effectiveness and its ability to achieve the intended impact,” says Henly-Shepard. Additionally, traditional DRR often fails to account for the complexity of risk, including overlapping environmental, climate, and social shocks and stresses, and does not integrate social resilience capacity-building as a core component.

"Failing to consider all systems and their dynamic, interacting nature, as well as impacts from climate change and variability, leads to ineffective, sector-specific, short-term interventions that fail to sustainably address systemic root causes of risk."

The impacts of these failings have real-world implications. For example, when Cyclone Idai devastated Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe in March 2019, “There were last-mile access barriers and gaps that challenged preparedness and response at community levels” says Ann Vaughan, Head of the Influence and Advocacy Workstream of the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance, for Mercy Corps. These barriers included a lack of early warning systems (EWS) and community-engaged DRR, pre-existing environmental degradation, and food insecurity, due in part to impacts from climate change and economic volatility, all of which were exacerbated by the cyclone.
In another example, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, humanitarian aid actors are now trying to retroactively mitigate the negative impacts their aid systems have had both on previously forested areas and on Rohingya refugees, including failing to incorporate environmental protection, EWS, and refugee-inclusive DRR. All of these have increased the refugees’ risks to natural hazards such as landslides, flooding, cyclones, and public health emergencies.
Ensuring more accessible and effective early warning information for climate and environmental shocks and stresses, as well as surveillance of disease outbreaks, is critical for DRR to meet the challenges of the climate crisis. EWS and climate information services are another set of critical DRR resources that support coping and adaptation from both sudden-onset events, such as cyclones, or slow onset events, such as drought, particularly when synced with community-mobilized DRR.
However, EWS are only effective if the information is designed and delivered based on what people need most. “For the most vulnerable populations to benefit from early warning systems, their perspectives must be central to the design and delivery of information, ensuring it is appropriately contextualized, accessible, and actionable to users,” says Ali Blumenstock, a Program Manager with the Mercy Corps Environment Technical Support Unit. “Bringing the voices of the most vulnerable populations together with local and national stakeholders through participatory processes like the Climate Information Services Systems Development Methodology is critical to ensuring that the early warning system is effective in saving lives and reducing harm to livelihoods and property.”


Nepali woman sitting on rubble

DRR must continue to evolve and integrate resilience principles to meet growing challenges. This means integrating short- and long-term climate and environmental trends in disaster risk reduction planning, programs, and policies. It also requires ensuring that sustainable natural resource management, climate change adaptation, and resilience approaches, tools, and nexus strategies are harmonized to achieve humanitarian and development goals.

The Resilience in Action Technical Brief “offers a conceptual framework and practical case studies that highlight best practices for operationalizing win-win climate and ecosystem-inclusive DRR resilience strategies,” says Henly-Shepard.
The three case studies include perspectives from transboundary flood risk management coordination in Indonesia, markets systems development and DRR in Timor Leste and Nepal, and community-mobilized DRR and environmental safeguarding embedded into humanitarian assistance in Cox’s Bazar. From these case studies, Henly-Shepard and her co-authors distilled four tenets for how and why programs are more effective when holistic, climate and ecosystem-inclusive DRR is integrated into a resilience framework:
  • Tenet 1: Utilizing and linking cross-sector tools that cover comprehensive risk and resilience assessments supports better integration and layering of programs; 

  • Tenet 2: Systems thinking enables application of win-win DRR nexus strategies (e.g., planting sugar cane to support shoreline erosion risk reduction and income generation) that support addressing systemic root causes of risk, and have impact assessment measures that ensure programs will not increase risk. They also support resilience capacity-building for immediate coping and longer-term adaptation to risks and achievement of development outcomes; 

  • Tenet 3: Community mobilization and transboundary, cross-sector governance over longer time periods are both required to foster sustainable holistic DRR at landscape scales and across boundaries; and

  • Tenet 4: Investments in contingency planning for program operations to be resilient to the potential climate, environment, social and economic shocks and stresses programs and teams may face are critical for achieving humanitarian and development goals.
Amidst unprecedented global tensions over pandemic, conflict, and poverty, this integrated resilience approach highlights the crucial need to address climate and environmental issues through holistic DRR interventions, making humanitarian and development program impacts more effective, equitable, sustainable, and resilient.
Strategic Objective
Adaptation, Integration, Mitigation
Adaptation, Climate Risk Management, Conflict and Governance, Disaster Risk Management, Health, Mitigation, Resilience, Weather
Africa, Asia, Global
Sarah Henly Shepard headshot

Sarah Henly-Shepard

Sarah Henly-Shepard, MPH, Ph.D. is the Senior Advisor for Climate, Resilience, Environment and Disaster Risk Reduction at Mercy Corps. She provides technical support and thought leadership on resilience, disaster risk reduction, development and climate change adaptation, particularly within complex humanitarian emergencies and fragile contexts. Dr. Henly-Shepard has 20 years of implementation, research and advocacy experience in the fields of community health and development, humanitarian assistance, human rights, disaster risk reduction and resilience, climate change adaptation, and natural resource management. Her education includes a BA from the University of Texas-Austin (2004), a MPH from Johns Hopkins University (2008) with a Certificate in Humanitarian Assistance, Health and Human Rights, and a Ph.D. in Natural Resource & Environmental Management and a Certificate in Planning, with her dissertation on Community Disaster Resilience and Climate Change Adaptation, from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (2013). Sarah is also a Global Board of Directors Member for GNDR, the Global Network for Civil Society Organisations in Disaster Reduction, and is a focal point on many international networks for Mercy Corps.

Ali Blumenstock headshot

Ali Blumenstock

Ali Blumenstock is a program manager with the Mercy Corps Environment Technical Support Unit, where she provides technical support and thought leadership in climate change adaptation, while also supporting the organization’s COVID-19 response efforts in water, sanitation, and hygiene. She has over 8 years of experience working with development and advocacy organizations across the United States and around the world in the fields of conservation, climate change adaptation, and environmental justice. She holds a Master’s in Global Human Development from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

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