For Coastal Cities At Risk of Rising Tides, Ecosystems...

Rebekkah Hogan Former Associate, Research

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October 23, 2014

For Coastal Cities At Risk of Rising Tides, Ecosystems Offer Shelter

A Fire Island, N.Y., home destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, shown Feb. 22, 2013. Photo credit: Flickr user New York District, U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers
A Fire Island, N.Y., home destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, shown Feb. 22, 2013. (Photo credit: Flickr/ New York District, U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers)

Most of the people living in the coastal areas of the world’s largest cities are poor, not rich. And 90 percent of the world’s coastal poor are located in Asia.

As part of the Strategic Research team, I was privileged to lead an investigation on the connections between natural infrastructure, coastal ecosystems and the livelihoods of poor coastal communities. As coastal ecosystems are being degraded, and natural infrastructure damaged and lost, these poor communities are increasingly vulnerable to storms and floods literally washing away their homes and livelihoods. One key takeaway from this project for me was the extent to which poor communities often do not have rights to the land they live on, and therefore limited engagement with governments and businesses who are making land-use decisions. This article from Insights provides some high level information from the research. For more detailed information on vulnerable natural infrastructure, please refer to the Strategic Research page.

The following story is from Insights:

“They lose twice,” says Edward Barbier, a professor of economics at Wyoming University and editor of a book on Asia’s disappearing mangrove ecosystems, in the Wall Street Journal in 2004, just days after a tsunami devastated the coastal communities and cities in Southeast Asia. Barbier was referring to the urban poor who are often pushed out of areas desirable for tourism or commerce development and, as a result, are forced to live in areas that offer less natural protection from storms and flooding.

Today, some 125 million of the world’s poor live in urban coastal zones, and that number is increasing at twice the global population growth rate. The World Bank projects that by 2025 at least 65 percent of the urban population on each continent will reside in low-elevation coastal zones. Urban poor living in large coastal cities with a population over 2 million people are especially vulnerable, as they have minimal, if any, natural or other protections against hazards.

Most of the people living in the coastal areas of the world’s largest cities are poor, not rich. And 90 percent of the world’s coastal poor are located in Asia.
Most of the people living in the coastal areas of the world’s largest cities are poor, not rich. And 90 percent of the world’s coastal poor are located in Asia.


These protections are only one of the many benefits coastal ecosystems provide. Especially in medium-size and emerging coastal cities, natural infrastructure, including wetlands, estuaries, and coral reefs, provides coastal populations with a wide range of services such as food production, livelihood sources, and water treatment and sanitation services.

In the area of the Coral Triangle, which includes Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, some 340 million people depend on natural coastal ecosystems for their livelihoods. Globally, 90 percent of the world’s 1.1 billion poor depend on some type of forest—for example, mangroves—for at least a part of their income. More than 50 million employed globally through small-scale fisheries in developing countries are in coastal or marine areas and are thus heavily reliant on coastal and marine natural infrastructures to sustain their livelihoods.

“Around the world, 50 percent of wetlands have been lost since 1900. Offshore, coral reefs are expected to shrink 60 percent over the next 30 years.”

Yet, due to trends like migration, changing settlement patterns, tourism, and industrial development—in addition to climate change impacts—ecosystems are changing and disappearing at an alarming rate. Around the world, 50 percent of wetlands have been lost since 1900. Offshore, coral reefs are expected to shrink 60 percent over the next 30 years.

The problem is most acute in Asia due to high numbers of coastal poor, rapidly degrading ecosystems and resulting natural infrastructure loss, and projected climate change impacts in the region. Asian countries account for 80 percent of the world’s coastal poor and 70 percent of the world’s population living in high-risk flood zones. In Africa, the risks to the environment and people come from seasonal flooding, made worse by rapid population growth on urban coastlines. In the top 17 U.S. coastal cities, currently more than 8 million people live in flood zones, and 6.5 million people face significant risk from storm surges and flooding. Along with sea levels, that number will rise to 12.5 million by 2070.

Government policies and regulations to deter degradation of natural infrastructure have failed to sufficiently address the problem. There are several reasons for this: legal and regulatory systems in which the poor in coastal communities have few property rights and low engagement in land-use decisions; business and economic structures that undervalue natural ecosystem benefits; and a political tendency to embrace grey infrastructure—man-made structures such as seawalls, which have been shown to lose their effectiveness over time—as opposed to natural infrastructure enhancements, which actually appreciate in value.

One solution has been to blend grey and green infrastructure. In the Netherlands, after the damaging 1993 flood in which the dikes nearly failed, the government began planning to build higher dikes, but a coalition of nonprofit organizations convinced them to try grey-green solutions. Environmental experts worked with engineers to plant sea grasses and other vegetation in front of the dikes, which reduced wave heights by 80 percent. The grey-green approach has led many stakeholders to shift their thinking to work with nature rather than build defenses against it. And it’s timely as more and more climate change–related impacts can’t be averted and will require a mix of coastal protection measures.

Natural Infrastructure Typologies


There are times when a natural infrastructure-only model can work effectively. In rural areas throughout Asia, for example, there are large-scale mangrove restoration projects supported by governments. And in Chile, Nepal, China, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Thailand, the International Union for Conservation of Nature is in the second year of a five-year program to teach communities how to protect their natural infrastructure and how to be more resilient in response to extreme weather events.

In either case, policymakers and the public are increasingly accepting of new ways of assessing and valuing coastal ecosystems. For many cities, it’s no longer a question of whether natural infrastructure should be part of the solution—it’s now more a question of how to do it.

In this dynamic landscape, three opportunities have emerged.

The first is to capitalize on the growing demand and support for climate change adaption efforts. Disasters and other crises—and their increased frequency—have enabled more governments to build the political will to take action. For example, Superstorm Sandy moved New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to appoint a commission, co-chaired by Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin, to rethink the state’s resilience planning and infrastructure investments. At the same time, then–New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg promoted an ambitious multi-point program to strengthen the city’s ability to withstand extreme weather events, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing natural infrastructure protection along city waterfronts.

“For many cities, it’s no longer a question of whether natural infrastructure should be part of the solution—it’s now more a question of how to do it.”

But more can be done to help make the connections between governments, conservation organizations, public interest groups, and the private sector to design natural infrastructure projects. One innovative approach, led by U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan and funded by The Rockefeller Foundation, is Rebuild by Design, a competition launched after Superstorm Sandy, which has brought together leading architects, engineers, and urban planners to propose designs that can reduce communities’ vulnerability to climate change and extreme weather.

A second opportunity is to expand our portfolio of tools, including both natural and green infrastructure solutions, and instruments for vulnerability assessment, ecosystems valuation, and trade-off analysis.The Natural Capital Project, a collaboration among Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, has used InVEST, a suite of software models, that helps decision-makers visualize the impacts of decisions and identify trade-offs and compatibilities among environmental, economic, and social benefits. Still in beta, the model could be used to assess the environmental and social impacts by quantifying the expected gains and loss of ecosystems services, or to develop practical strategies to mitigate or minimize negative impacts. Food manufacturers could use it to assess the environmental and social sustainability of their agricultural supply chains, for example, by investigating water usage. Energy companies in the United States could assess the impacts of shale gas production on local biodiversity or carbon sequestration.

A third opportunity is to increase experimentation with community-led and market-based approaches, such as payments for ecosystems services, among other innovative solutions to incent ecosystem-friendly urban growth strategies. Partners from different sectors, including insurance companies, infrastructure firms, and local and national governments, can create innovative financing mechanisms for natural infrastructure investment and maintenance. For example, RE.invest is a new form of public–private partnerships that will help cities package portfolios of investments aimed at building more resilient infrastructure. With the help of leading engineering, law, and finance firms, the cities will be able to use public resources more efficiently to leverage private investments in, for example, better storm water infrastructure. In another example, Conservation International and the World Bank have been involved in the Payments for Ecosystems program, which assigns a monetary value to the services that ecosystems provide, and sets up a system of compensation for communities, cities, and countries that care for them. In the case of urban coastal ecosystems, the payments center on the poor in communities along coastlines.

On the whole, coastal communities offer an extraordinary range of benefits to the people who live there. A shift to a broader view on productive ecosystems, the services they provide to cities, and the role they play in resilience can provide for effective and economically sustainable investment where appropriate, and ensure that poor communities who disproportionately rely on the ecosystem for livelihood benefits are getting them.

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