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As the interconnected nature of disasters and their underlying root causes are increasing risks at all scales, it is time to recognize the shortcomings of fragmented responses. In our interconnected world, it is crucial to address connected root causes and emerging risks in an integrated way.

Using interconnectivity to our advantage

The world today is essentially facing three crises simultaneously: climate change, biodiversity loss and disaster risk. Solutions that tackle these three crises must address the interconnected nature of their root causes, because if they focus too narrowly on only one or two core issues, they can unwittingly result in negative impacts that increase other risks. Instead, it must be the goal to tackle multiple root causes and emerging risks in an integrated way, while also enhancing capacities to prepare for and respond to future disasters. Such an approach uses interconnectivity to our advantage, and it reduces the likelihood of one disaster leading to the next.

Solutions that focus on a problem without consideration of its interconnectivity to other problems can result in negative side effects that increase other risks. We can’t afford to devote precious time and resources to ‘maladaptations’ − solutions which not only are ineffective, but actively work against our risk reduction goals in other areas. For example, if we rely on pesticides to help control locust outbreaks, these pesticides can have negative effects on biodiversity and public health. A better solution is to use ecosystem-friendly ways of curbing locust population growth before the locusts even turn into large swarms.

But even solutions that address more than one root cause can have trade-offs. For example, hydropower dams are a good solution to provide renewable energy and help reduce disaster risk such as floods. At the same time, they can have negative effects on biodiversity as they fragment rivers and therefore the habitats of animals who live in them. Fishes, for example, may not be able to reach their spawning ground anymore. Dams also trap sediments which are transported by rivers, such as eroded soil and debris from the surrounding land, which means that fewer sediments travel downstream to the coast. Fewer sediments at the coast leads to coastal erosion and therefore less protection against storms and flooding. These trade-offs must be recognized and addressed in order to achieve a robust path to progress.

Ideally, the solutions we implement harness interconnectivity to not only be ‘no-regret’, but also ‘win-win-win’ solutions; this means they are solutions that have benefits across the three different dimensions we need to address. For instance, one win-win-win approach are so-called ‘nature-based solutions’. An example of this are mangroves forests: When coasts are lined with mangroves, they have a natural protection against storms, but the mangrove forests also reduce atmospheric CO2, they support biodiversity as a habitat for animals, and they are an income source for local fishermen. However, in many places around the world, mangrove forests have been destroyed. An ecosystem-based solution aims to protect and restore ecosystems such as mangroves, recognizing that this approach addresses all three crises at once.

What could help?

Even when we technically have solutions to address disasters, there are a number of additional aspects that can either encourage or hinder their implementation:

1. Awareness

When people are interested in and enthusiastic about a topic, it stimulates mobilization and action. Environmental education, for instance, can enhance values such as connectedness and care, and encourage people to support actions and initiatives to protect the environment. At the same time, public awareness puts pressure on policymakers to act on an issue and can thus influence policy and mobilize resources.

2. Incentives

Incentives encourage people to engage in or refrain from certain behaviours or actions. Positive incentives, such as direct payments to forest or land owners to maintain nature, can encourage people to refrain from destroying habitats, which could have a positive effects for example in the case of the Amazon wildfires and COVID-19. Similarly, negative incentives such as taxing fossil fuels could discourage emitting greenhouse gases and enable the transition to climate neutrality.

3. Inclusive governance

Participatory approaches that involve all groups in society, such as the private sector, indigenous groups, women and youth, and civil society, include different perspectives and tend to help to reach solutions which are widely accepted.

4. International collaboration

In an increasingly interconnected world, there is a strong need for international collaboration that builds on transparency and trust. The COVID-19 pandemic has again demonstrated the crucial role of international collaboration.

Finally, it is important to remember that we, as individuals, are part of an interconnected system, and no one is too small to make a change. Though often we are not responsible individually for the damages we see, our actions, attitudes and behaviours have influence, too. When viewed in isolation, an individual action presents a minor change; but when viewed as a part of a larger whole, individual steps can change the shape of the future. Our collective actions can create lasting, meaningful and positive change, and this ‘butterfly effect’ can start with you.

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