Adaptation – protecting natural resources

Natural Resources

Compiled by Bob Hansford.

Natural resources are essential for all of us. Every time we prepare a meal, we use natural resources. For many of us, trees, bamboo and grasses provide the raw materials for housing. Natural vegetation feeds our cattle, natural fibres clothe our bodies, wood and coal provide much of the energy for lighting and heating, and wild plants are the source of herbal medicines. Perhaps the most precious resource of all is water – for drinking, bathing, cooking and agriculture.

Natural resources include all plants, animals and insects, as well as the non-living world. The complex interactions between them are essential for sustaining life. God has created an intricate web of relationships between all these parts of creation, each dependent upon many others. People are caretakers of God’s world. If we abuse our position and misuse or destroy one resource, such as water or an animal species, we damage the sensitive balance of all these systems.

And yet these resources are under threat. Some scientists tell us that over a third of all plants, animals and insects are at risk of extinction, with over 70 per cent of all plant species threatened. By the year 2025, around six billion people will be living in countries facing water shortages. Each year, an area of forest the size of Bangladesh is destroyed. Areas which were previously productive fields, dense forests or cattle grazing areas will change into unproductive desert. Many more countries will suffer food shortages and poor people will be worst affected.

Why are natural resources under threat?

  • climate change
  • environmental degradation
  • natural hazards.

Climate change is leading to more frequent and severe weather events, such as wind-storms. It is also leading to big changes in rainfall patterns, causing floods and droughts. The growing conditions for plants and food crops are changing – some will adapt and survive, others will disappear. This is undermining livelihoods (eg farming), forcing people to move to vulnerable locations, or forcing them to exploit natural resources to survive (eg by tree cutting).

Environmental degradation is mostly man-made and due to the over-exploitation or pollution of natural resources. For example, the excessive removal of underground water by farms and factories, the over-extraction of minerals and the pollution of water courses will all affect the environment. Cutting down trees reduces the ability of soil to absorb heavy rain and reduces the land’s ability to support natural vegetation.

Natural hazards, both weather-related (eg floods, cyclones and droughts) and geo-physical (eg earthquakes and volcanoes) have always been present. When natural hazards affect a vulnerable population, disaster is the consequence. Around nine out of ten disasters are related to the climate. Some of these hazards have a devastating impact upon natural resources: cyclones flatten trees, tidal surges pollute fields and ponds with salty water, and drought takes away water-holes and pasture for cattle. (See figure 1.)

So what can be done? Natural resources can be protected and conserved in various ways:

Personal responsibility

The fate of our natural resources lies partly with each of us, in the day to day choices we make. We can live as responsible caretakers, minimising our use of resources and avoiding damage and exploitation. We can do this whether we live in a rural area, a town, or a city. To protect our local environment, we can:

  • use a fuel efficient stove
  • use a different fuel in place of wood
  • use a bicycle instead of a car for short journeys
  • grow trees and vegetables
  • start composting
  • collect rainwater.

Project impact assessment 

Several guides have been produced for development workers to help measure the likely impact of project activities upon the environment, including upon natural resources (see the resources page for more information). By careful project design, we can ensure that our work protects natural resources, not only in the present, but in the changing conditions of the future. 

Specific project interventions 

Within each of the three circles on the diagram (figure 2), there are specific project activities which can reduce or reverse the impact of natural hazards, environmental degradation and climate change. Sometimes, the strengthening of a natural resource can help reduce the impact of natural hazards, including those made worse by climate change. For example, if damaged coastal mangrove forests are restored, they can protect against tidal surges. Activities in the central overlapping area will work against the effects of all three – natural hazards, climate change and environmental degradation. 

Specific project interventions 

Within each of the three circles on the diagram (figure 2), there are specific project activities which can reduce or reverse the impact of natural hazards, environmental degradation and climate change. Sometimes, the strengthening of a natural resource can help reduce the impact of natural hazards, including those made worse by climate change. For example, if damaged coastal mangrove forests are restored, they can protect against tidal surges. Activities in the central overlapping area will work against the effects of all three – natural hazards, climate change and environmental degradation. 

Advocacy for change

We can take action at local, national and international levels to help protect natural resources. Several community groups or NGOs (non-governmental organisations) can work together to present a common opinion to local or national decision-makers. For example, when water policies are being developed, we can encourage the planning authority to take account of the predicted effects of climate change, so that increases in floods or droughts will not make those policies ineffective. Communities can work together to prevent local industries using excessive amounts of groundwater, so that their wells and water sources do not dry up. 

Bob Hansford is Tearfund’s Disaster Risk Reduction Advisor. 


Case study 

Archaeologists have studied the ancient Nazca civilisation in Peru, which dis­appeared suddenly around 1500 years ago. Research has shown that the society was heavily dependent upon the huarango forests. These huge trees had very deep roots, and were a source of food, forage, timber and fuel for the Nazcas. They also maintained the groundwater level and fertilised the soil for other plants. When those forests were over-exploited and cut down, and maize was planted instead, large areas of lowland became much more vulnerable to flooding caused by El Niño (the warming of the Pacific Ocean – an event that happens every few years). As the trees disappeared, a ‘tipping point’ was reached and in a short space of time, the large Nazca civilisation disappeared as well. If we cannot learn to look after our natural resources, will we suffer the same fate?