How to build global coastal resilience: Past, present and future challenges

A sleepy coastal village in Samar island, Philippines, where the entire economic activity relies on fishing. Photo by: Bertrand Duperrin / CC BY-NC-ND

World leaders got together in March in Sendai, Japan, to discuss how to reduce risks from future disasters at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. We know that the frequency of disasters will continue to rise because of climate change and that our current and future development choices play an even larger in determining risks.

That challenge is greatest and growing on our coastlines. Risk reduction must always involve multiple strategies and building natural coastal resilience must be a significant part of the equation.

This was brought home most poignantly for me in discussions of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. While at the Sendai conference, I participated in a panel hosted by R3ADY and convened by the first lady of Japan, Akie Abe, at Tohoku University. The setup was surreal. The Japanese government led by Prime Minister Shinzō Abe is currently building hundreds of miles of sea walls all along this coastline. These sea walls, which reach heights of 15-20 feet, are facing serious resistance from members of the opposition and even the first lady herself.

The panel was led by five coastal community members who lost their homes in the tsunami, but oppose the sea walls. Their stories were equally tragic and hopeful. Tomoyuki Miura of Kesennuma City summed up his experiences, which I have paraphrased from translation below:

“I lost my house and village but built a shack by the water so I could keep looking for my mother. I never found her. She was washed to sea. But tsunamis happen and I love our coast and I don’t want a seawall to block me from it. We need other options including living farther back from the coast and having better evacuation routes.”

Some feared for the future less from the sea and more from the loss of their connection to it. They invited outside experts to provide global perspectives on approaches toward building coastal resilience. Indeed there are other approaches. All risk reduction should involve multiple strategies including early warning, green infrastructure, gray infrastructure and risk transfer.

As part of the Global Resilience Challenge, The Nature Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Society and a growing team of collaborators are developing approaches to reduce risks that combine natural habitats with other methods. We aim to help reduce risks from natural disasters to the more than 200 million people around the world who live in low lying, exposed areas near mangrove forests. Our challenge team will help advance approaches and incentives to restore mangroves as nature-based defenses. At present, millions of dollars are spent on artificial cement coastal barriers that fail to provide long-term disaster protection and further harm damaged ecosystems.

In addition to focusing on nature-based defenses rather than just artificial defenses, we want to ensure that these defenses are built to achieve ecological conservation and risk reduction in ways that are strategic and effective. There have been important successes in mangrove restoration particularly in Southeast Asia, but there have been substantial failures too, which we need to learn from. Our team aims to develop best practices, demonstration projects and guidance to overcome these failures. We also will expand access to innovative, online science and mapping tools to inform restoration for risk reduction through linked projects on Science for Nature and People (SNAP) and Coastal Resilience.

With SNAP, we are mapping demonstration projects around the world that use natural infrastructure and synthesizing information on their approaches, costs and effectiveness in a common database on the Natural Defense Projects app on Coastal Resilience. We will also map ocean wealth, and with the World Bank we will identify where nature has the greatest value in defending our coasts. And with Swiss Re, the world’s second largest reinsurer, we are identifying where habitat restoration can be most cost-effective for risk reduction.

During the Sendai panel, I reflected on my own global connection to the 2011 tsunami. I was 5,000 miles away at the Santa Cruz harbor in California to watch that same tsunami come ashore and cause damage to people’s boats and homes. And while this was absolutely nothing compared to the devastation in northern Japan, it still had power that far away.

And our development choices in California — cementing over the wetlands at the back of harbors — made the effects of the tsunami far worse as the waves bounced off the walls that resembled a bathtub and into boats instead of dissipating over the marshes. It’s exactly this type of mistake our innovation is looking to avoid for communities living near mangrove wetlands. We need to help these communities through approaches that build greater coastal resilience to natural disasters.

This blog post is part of a series highlighting the innovative projects supported by the Global Resilience Partnership, an initiative by The Rockefeller Foundation, U.S. Agency for International Development and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency designed to help millions in Africa and Asia build more resilient futures.

You can help shape our coverage on global development innovations by emailing or tweeting #innov8aid.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Michael Beck

    Michael W. Beck is the lead marine scientist for The Nature Conservancy. He is also a research associate at the Institute for Marine Science and has an adjunct appointment in the Department of Ocean Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Beck serves on an advisory committee of the National Academy of Sciences (marine hydrokinetic energy) and on NOAA’s Science Advisory Board (ecosystem science and management work group).

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