30/05/2022 - Working with nature deepens humanitarian work

How green efforts make Red Cross work more effective 

Raimond Duijsens, Advisor Community Resilience and Disaster Risk Reduction, Netherlands Red Cross. This article was also published in Water Governance (2022, vol 01).

"Every year it was a hit," Marieta Jean Baptiste remembers well. "During hurricane season, we hide and fear the worst. The wind and rain raged through our village, and many houses were destroyed. Our cattle also suffered greatly." Her village in Grand Fond, near the coast on the south side of Haiti's peninsula, has a history of a lot of natural disasters, especially from hurricanes. As in other countries in the Caribbean, it is an annual phenomenon. In 2016, Matthew approached, which with winds of up to 240 km/h would be the strongest storm to hit Haiti in half a century. "We are bracing ourselves again. But he did almost nothing with us. The damage it could have done to us was prevented."

There was some damage, but all the houses were still standing, the landscape had survived well, there were no floods. That wasn't because the storm had deflected or weakened. In the months before, together with the Red Cross, we had looked at how adjustments in the landscape, and in the behaviour of people themselves, could strengthen the buffer function of the landscape. It proved successful: despite Matthew's strength, there were no floods in the Grand Fond valley, which was in stark contrast to previous hurricanes, and to other valleys nearby.

The symbiosis of poverty, landscape degradation and disasters

Analyses of vulnerability show that poverty is usually an equally important factor in explaining why natural disasters often turn into a disaster. It matters where people (can) live, how they live, and how they manage their environment. It is therefore no coincidence that Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, often suffers greater damage than other countries in the region, notably the neighbouring Dominican Republic. Houses are often not sturdy, and are located in places where they are vulnerable to the impact of extreme conditions. This vulnerability arises, among other things, because the natural environment no longer acts as a buffer. To get firewood, for example, or to make land suitable for agriculture, poor Haitian farmers have little choice but to cut down trees. The many slopes in the hilly landscape are therefore largely bare. During the severe storms, the rainwater is therefore hardly retained in the ground, which causes landslides and devastating water flows. The disaster then often leads to food insecurity, because fertile soil and crops have been lost. The need for further deforestation to make new land suitable for agriculture then becomes in fact the prelude to a next disaster. This vicious circle of poverty and vulnerability in Haiti is not unique. The realisation that the natural environment plays a major role in both causing and combating vulnerability is literally and figuratively gaining ground, including among organisations such as the Red Cross, and it is also increasingly being integrated into the broad approach to disaster management – an approach that can also go beyond just tackling disaster risks. The example of logging on the slope of hills shows that degraded ecosystems are no longer able to mitigate the power of natural disasters. Countries in South-East Asia and many other places show that this also applies to mangrove forests. When these forests, which typically grow in shallow coastal waters, are degraded or have disappeared, waves no longer find a barrier in their way and reach the coastal communities unmuted and with full force during storm surges, where they then cause a lot of damage. The Red Cross is therefore increasingly working on landscape restoration and management, for example in mangrove forests along the coasts of Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, or by restoring forests in Haiti. This is both necessary and logical to reverse the trend of increasing disasters, damage and recovery – a trend reinforced by climate change. The structure of the Red Cross also makes this possible: each of the 192 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies is present through local chapters in almost all cities and villages in the country, and the local volunteers who live and work there know the local context well. With their knowledge and insight, local problems get local solutions. The fact that these structures are permanent also helps: the Red Cross does not only come when there is a disaster, and does not leave when it is over.

Nature-based Solutions and Humanitarian Aid

These preventive measures are also complex, and require knowledge that the Red Cross does not necessarily have inhouse. Cooperation with ecological experts is therefore sought to map landscapes and to thoroughly understand the functioning of the ecological systems on site. It also fits in with the greater attention that humanitarian organizations pay to making communities resilient. In doing so, both emergency aid and prevention are looked at, and underlying causes are tackled simultaneously and integrally as much as possible. For example, it is not only about disasters, but also about food, housing, health care, water and hygiene, education, poverty reduction. To this end, many parties involved have to work together, and the Red Cross often acts as a convener that brings parties together. A lot of attention is paid to making the voice of the vulnerable communities themselves heard. 1 Finally, the legally established role of the Red Cross as supporting the government in disaster relief helps to involve local authorities in these initiatives. In addition to strengthening the buffer function, the Red Cross contributes its knowledge about flooding and disaster management. For example, small infrastructural measures are taken for the drainage of water, and risk reduction teams are established to map disaster risks. Emergency structures are also set up and strengthened, such as for First Aid, search and rescue, and evacuation. Finally, warning systems are being set up, for example through better cooperation with meteorological services.

These measures are also often a flywheel for addressing other vulnerabilities, which, as mentioned above, are often also poverty-related. For example, better water management can also help for irrigation and drinking water, which has a positive impact on food supply and people's health. This is further supported by information about water, sanitation and hygiene. In schools, attention is paid to disaster risks, and student teams help to keep the landscape healthy. However, the landscape focus brings more benefits. The buffer function is often achieved and strengthened by planting and managing crops that also yield food. The mangrove forests are usually a breeding ground for shrimp, and fruit trees can be planted on hills. Better landscape management also helps to use agricultural land more sustainably, which contributes to a higher yield, and even gives the opportunity to trade in agricultural products. These benefits are at the same time an incentive for proper maintenance of ecosystems.

The challenges of Nature-based Solutions

This logic of protection and development does not mean that landscape restoration is without challenges, certainly not for the Red Cross. The combination of disaster management and strengthening livelihoods, plus simultaneously working on consequences and causes of vulnerabilities, the long-term approach, and cooperation with external parties reflects the community resilience discourse that is increasingly gaining ground in the humanitarian world, and notably also within the Red Cross. This approach renders assistance first of all complex, because many manifestations of vulnerability must be addressed simultaneously and in conjunction. In addition to disaster management, it explicitly also concerns water, and food, health and infrastructure. Also, social structures and relationships with government and landowners play an important role. This requires not only that the various expertises within the Red Cross must be brought closer together, but also that there must be more cooperation with external parties – parties that all have their own approach, culture and interests. The complexity also puts pressure on coordination and monitoring, where the desire to free up sufficient capacity for this can be at odds with the desire to keep management costs as low as possible. Furthermore, it also means that the Red Cross must think and act more developmentally, whereas in the past actions were purely motivated by humanitarian considerations. This requires a different mindset, but at the same time the emphasis that Nature-based Solutions, and more generally Community Resilience, coexist with emergency aid, and does not replace it – the Red Cross will always take action in disasters and crises. This complementarity should be emphasized among communities, donors, the general public, and also in some places within the Red Cross itself. Finally, Nature-based Solutions do not bring direct protection and improvement. The interventions require a long breath from all involved. Results are only visible after a few years, when trees are planted, ecosystems have regained their natural function, livelihoods offer better outcomes, and economic activity leads to more income. And certainly, when it comes to protection against disasters, the results will not actually be visible: it is the disasters that do not happen, the damage that does not occur.

An improved perspective

Back to Grand Fond. "We now know that it was not only the storm that caused all the damage, but especially the fact that it had free rein," says Marieta. "When that realization was there, we started working." In the year leading up to the storm, Marieta and fellow residents of her community worked with the Red Cross to improve the landscape. Dams were built in the gullies to slow the flow of water, especially after heavy rainfall. In some places retaining walls were built. Plants such as vetiver, sisal, bamboo and elephant grass were planted to stop soil erosion while providing economic benefits; vetiver can be used for perfume and sisal for making rope. Deforested areas were replanted with oak, pine, cedar, eucalyptus, mango and avocado trees. Although this were only seedlings were when Hurricane Matthew hit, the dams (some of which were only finished a few weeks before the hurricane) immediately proved their worth. But the project was not limited to flood and erosion control. New crops and farming techniques were introduced, a local school was made disaster-proof so that it could function as a shelter during storms, villagers were educated about the environment and water use, early warning systems were set up and volunteers were trained to organize evacuations. Meanwhile, the dams helped the water to infiltrate into the soil, charging the aquifer and increasing the water available in the local watershed. A new water system was constructed with a distribution point and an adduction line that connects it to various water tanks. The irrigation system ensures a constant flow of water for agricultural purposes throughout the year, while some of the water (after being filtered) can be used for human consumption. Finally, alternatives are also being sought for tree felling and charcoal production – something that happens frequently in Haiti – to make people aware of the adverse consequences of this. The whole series of interventions has yielded positive results after Hurricane Matthew. Villagers feel safer and dare to plan ahead. The introduction of water filters led to a reduction in the number of cases of diarrhea, and agricultural production has also increased. Marieta: "The situation improved so much that I saw fellow villagers who had left for the city return. They used to call Haiti the Caribbean pearl. With us, it has regained its shine."

The Netherlands Red Cross is one of the frontrunners within the international Red Cross Movement with the application of so-called Nature-based Solutions. Through the Partners for Resilience alliance with Cordaid, CARE Nederland, Wetlands International and the Red Cross Climate Centre, it has been working in more than ten countries to make communities resilient through a combination of reducing disaster risks, better coping with the impacts of climate change, and restoring and managing ecosystems. Through local organizations, contingency plans have been drawn up for more than 600,000 people, and for about 125,000 people their livelihoods such as agriculture and animal husbandry have been improved. There is also much attention for lobbying on behalf of and with the vulnerable communities. A collaboration has been set up with about 100 organizations, and meetings with governments focus on making their policies and plans risk-informed. In some of the countries, special programmes have been launched with UN Environment to develop models to that will enable the upscaling and replication of Integrated Risk Management. The Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the European Union are important funders.

The Princess Margriet Fund of the Netherlands Red Cross supports prevention programmes in Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire and the Philippines, among others. Governments, landscape organisations and business incubators are working on healthy landscapes, safe communities, and economic empowerment of a number of vulnerable areas – including Grand Fond. For this purpose, work is done in three zones: a natural zone where the landscape remains untouched as much as possible in order to regain and preserve the natural functions, a mixed zone in which, for example, agriculture takes place, and an economic zone where most people live and work.




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