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UW Professor Proposes Global Strategy to Protect Vulnerable Coastal Populations

September 12, 2014
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UW Professor Edward Barbier proposes global strategies to protect vulnerable coastlines in the current issue of the journal Science.

Existing resources can be channeled to fund both short-term emergency responses and long-run investments necessary to protect vulnerable coastal populations from risks such as flooding, sea level rises and extreme storms, according to a paper published today (Friday) in the international journal Science.

In his article, “A global strategy for protecting vulnerable coastal populations,” University of Wyoming Professor Edward B. Barbier notes that low-lying coasts of developing countries face two types of vulnerabilities: lack of capacity to respond quickly and effectively to natural disasters, and declining protection for people and property as coastal habitats disappear.

“There is a need for a global emergency task force that is well-equipped and capable of restoring telecommunications and transport and coordinating support,” writes Barbier, the John S. Bugas Professor of Economics and Finance in the UW College of Business.

Barbier estimates the cost needed to fund such as task force, and says it could operate under the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs, through its Central Emergency Response Fund. It would require $2 billion in initial funding and $400 million in annual operation costs, around 3.1 percent of existing global humanitarian aid.

A long-term strategy for coastal adaptation should have two objectives: protecting coastlines and populations from risks posed by damaging storms; and restoring valuable coastal systems -- such as salt marshes, oyster and coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds and beaches -- and other land forms that act as natural barriers. A study for the United States has shown that if these habitats are left intact, the exposure of vulnerable populations and residential property to coastal hazards can be reduced by half.

Comprehensive plans to reduce coastal vulnerability should also include key infrastructure investments -- such as seawalls, dikes, barrages and diversions -- and improved institutional and coastal community response capability.

Although developed countries do not need international assistance for a strategy, developing economies -- especially in tropical Latin America, Asia and Africa -- may lack the capacity and money to develop and implement a long-term plan. Additionally, Barbier says, there needs to be a greater commitment to research targeted to coastal areas. Assistance could be provided to local and national authorities through a collaborative and coordinated effort instigated by the World Bank, the U.N. Development Programme and the U.N. Environment Programme.

“These multilateral institutions have the necessary expertise to instigate and to assist with such long-term planning efforts, including targeting investments to vulnerable populations in coastal zones,” Barbier says. He says it would require cost-sharing and $575 million in assistance, or 20 percent of current global climate change adaptation funds.

Summarizing his proposals, Barbier says, “The two-tier global strategy for reducing the vulnerability of low-lying coasts would go a long way to reducing the vulnerability of coastal populations, given the increased risks from sea-level rise, flooding and extreme storm events. But such a strategy also needs to be supported by scientific research that improves the effectiveness of a global emergency task force, identifies vulnerable coastal zones, and develops potential mitigation options to reduce the risks posed by future coastal hazards.”

To read Barbier’s full article in Science, visit

Hear UW Professor Edward Barbier discuss his global strategy to protect vulnerable coastal populations.Hear UW Professor Edward Barbier discuss his global strategy to protect vulnerable coastal populations.

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