Muralee Thummarukudy

Chief of Disaster Risk Reduction at United Nations Environment Programme. UNEP

'Ecosystem Based Approaches to Building Resilience'

August 16, 2017
 | Time: 

Disasters are something which we heard about only infrequently, even 20 years back, such as a flood in Bangladesh, a cyclone in Haiti or an earthquake in Iran. But we seem to hear about disasters now much more frequently. Are there more disasters happening around the world, or are we just hearing about them due to better communication and global connectivity?

The answer to this question is not simple. True, there is better connectivity and more communication with social media, making everybody a reporter and every twitter feed a media. Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of natural hazards such as cyclones and high rainfall events. But based on the evidence, more and more disasters happen because we tend to place our ever increasing resources in harm’s way.

Disasters occur when a resource, be it community, infrastructure or environment, intersects with a natural hazard. Geological hazards, like earthquakes and tsunamis, have more or less been constant on a historical scale. Climatic hazards are on the rise, but at the same time, humanity is expanding and getting richer. People are moving into places which so far had remained un-inhabited, and they are building more and more infrastructure in locations which were once remote.

As natural hazards is a variable we can’t fully control, our efforts must focus on reducing exposure and increasing capacity of communities to deal with the disasters. This is how we build resilience of communities and thus countries.

Over the past ten years, UN Environment has been leading global efforts to introduce ecosystem-based approaches to disaster risk reduction or Eco-DRR. A number of environmental features, such as coastal mangroves, wetlands or forests have shown the ability to buffer natural hazards as well as assist communities to recover faster. By protecting existing environmental resources and by establishing new ecosystems which offer such protection services, one could minimise disaster risks and maximise community resilience. As environmental protection offers a number of additional ecosystem services which communities can benefit from, even during periods without disasters, such Eco-DRR approaches offer superior long term returns compared to grey infrastructure. The challenge, however, is to turn around the engineering community into considering green infrastructure based on Eco-DRR principles or hybrid infrastructure which combine both green and grey infrastructure, when they develop conceptual designs for urban or coastal resilience.

The lecture will cover UN Environment’s efforts in this domain, the Partnership for Environment and Disaster Risk Reduction which was established to promote Eco-DRR globally, our efforts to build capacity through Massive Open Online Courses and our success in getting ecosystem-based approaches in global frameworks on disaster risk reduction. The lecture will also cover the challenges we are facing in getting such approaches accepted by the engineering community and present that for discussion.

Muralee is currently the Chief of Disaster Risk Reduction at United Nations Environment Programme, based in Geneva, Switzerland. He holds a PhD in Environmental Engineering from Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur and is an Alumnus of the International Leadership Academy (United Nations University) and a Beahrs’ fellow at the University of California, Berkeley.

Muralee has over 25 years of experience in Environment and Disaster Management around the world. Between 1995 and 2003, Muralee was a Corporate Advisor to Shell operated oil companies in Middle East and South East Asia, dealing with oil industry related emergencies.

Since 2003, Muralee has been an Operations Manager at the United Nations Environment Programme, coordinating projects ranging from assessment to capacity building and clean-up worldwide. He was involved in post disaster response and follow up to 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake, Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, the earthquake in Haiti, Tsunami in Japan, floods in Thailand, the earthquake in Nepal and Hurricane Mattew in Haiti. Muralee also has been involved in post conflict follow up in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, occupied Palestinian territories, Sudan,  Liberia and Ukraine.

Since 2009, Muralee focuses his work on Disaster Risk Reduction and is engaged in global advocacy for factoring in Ecosystems into National DRR Strategies. Muralee plays a leading role in the Partnership for Environment and Disaster Risk Reduction.

Muralee is also a member of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Committee of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna and Advisory Board of the Center for Natural Resources and Development at the Cologne University of Applied Sciences.