Building community resilience to natural hazards
As we saw in our sustainable cities feature, the magnitude of the issues facing people living and working in cities means that they cannot be tackled by governments alone. This is especially true in the context of natural hazards.
In recent years, weather-related disasters have increased in frequency and intensity reinforcing the view that we’re starting to experience the consequences of not taking stronger action on climate change and environmental degradation across the globe. And given that a significant number of the major disasters are occurring in some of the world’s largest cities and more often than not in developing countries, the sustainability challenges they face are being exacerbated and achievement of the Millennium Development Goals is becoming increasingly complicated.
It, therefore, makes sense that Rio +20 should include disaster risk reduction and community resilience building as one of the seven critical sustainable development issues it will focus on.
For cities to remain sustainable in the face of the increasing frequency of severe weather events, it is imperative that governments at all levels work closely with the private sector, NGOs and civil society. And given that Mother Nature is so unpredictable and unforgiving, this collaborative approach must extend beyond city limits and borders, and into the regional and rural areas that are so often the food bowls of their country. All the various stakeholders must take shared although not necessarily equal responsibility, for understanding key risks and taking proactive action to prevent, prepare, respond and recover from severe weather events.1
The end goal of this collaboration is resilience. We need resilient countries, cities, communities, businesses, households and individuals in order to survive and thrive in the face of rapid change, including the disruption caused by disasters and emergencies. Even though there is no universally agreed definition for resilience, the terminology does tend to be similar. Phrases such as “bounce back”, “collective responsibility”, “community spirit”, “future-proof”, “social capital”, “risk management”, “adaptable” and “self-reliance” appear frequently in the definitions.
The community resilience definition proposed by the UK Cabinet Office emphasises the importance of local contexts: “Local communities using local resources and knowledge to help themselves during an emergency in a way that complements the local emergency services.” We need to empower individual communities to establish their own understanding of what resilience means in their unique contexts, as each community has vastly different risks, needs, assets, capabilities and values. Communities that are empowered to help themselves are more likely to feel a sense of ownership to instigate localised action and collaborate with governments to enhance their own community resilience.2
Characteristics of community resilience
Considerable research and stakeholder engagement has been conducted on the characteristics of resilient communities to inform policymaking and disaster and emergency planning. In its community safety and resilience framework, for example, The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) suggests the following characteristics of resilient communities:
- Understand the disaster risks faced, and can assess and monitor them, and take steps to protect themselves and minimise losses and damage from disasters
- Able to do much for themselves and can sustain basic community functions and structures despite disaster impacts
- Can build back after a disaster and work towards ensuring that vulnerabilities continue to be reduced for the future
- Understand that building safety and resilience is a long-term, continuous process requiring ongoing commitment and the ability to adapt to future issues
- Appreciate that being safe and disaster resilient means that development goals are more likely to be met.3
CarnegieUK Trust also examines the key characteristics of community resilience in times of rapid change and suggests the following in its handbook:
- Healthy and engaged people
- An inclusive culture creating a positive sense of place
- A localising economy
- Strong links to other places and communities.4
Social capital (i.e. our own personal networks), coordination and self-sufficiency are inextricably linked to these characteristics and they also reinforce the importance of working together. “Healthy and engaged people” are more likely to volunteer their time and resources to help with response and recovery when disaster strikes. This was witnessed in the Christchurch earthquakes through the 10,000-strong Student Volunteer Army, in the Brisbane floods through the Mud Army and in the Cumbria floods where individuals and grassroots organisations rallied together to lend a hand.5
Interestingly, the reference to “a localising economy” points to decentralisation of essential services such as water and energy, which is in essence the opposite to current development patterns, making it a crucial area of focus. We saw examples of the effectiveness of localising urban food supply in our sustainable cities feature; sustainable food initiatives help to build community resilience by increasing the number of green recreational areas, regenerating natural habitats and improving flood protection.
The ability to learn from experience, be adaptable, employ holistic and creative solutions and utilise technology effectively are also important characteristics of community resilience. The Mayor of Rio de Janeiro’s response to Brazil’s mudslide disaster demonstrates this in action. With the help of IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative, Mayor Paes developed a command centre that provides real-time information about all types of emergency situations, not only mudslides.
The vital role of communication
Communication in all its forms is a critical feature of efforts to build community resilience, not to mention delivery of professional emergency management services. Governments, businesses, community organisations and individuals must maintain an ongoing dialogue with one another to establish a strong understanding of key issues and how they impact different stakeholders and to identify priority actions for disaster prevention, preparation, response and recovery.
In recent years, social media has changed the communications landscape. The immediacy and decentralised way in which news is now communicated through social media, means it is essential for governments and emergency management professionals to engage in the online debate and have a strong presence before, during and after major weather events. The way in which Queensland Police Service (QPS), the Australian state of Queensland’s lead agency in the response phase of a disaster, managed its social media communication during the Queensland floods and cyclones of summer 2010/11 is seen as a world leading example of a government department engaging with the public to provide timely status updates that enabled communities to help themselves. Its strategy saw the QPS Facebook ‘likes’ increase from 8,000 in early November 2010 to around 170,000 in early February when Tropical Cyclone Yasi hit.6
Traits of un-resilient communities
If one or more of the above characteristics is not present it is likely that a community will be less resilient to disasters and emergencies. This was evident during Hurricane Katrina when poorer communities on the Gulf Coast did not have a means of escape. Besides not owning cars and having insufficient funds to afford public transport, food and accommodation, these people also lacked the social connections (i.e. social capital) with out-of-town extended family and more affluent parts of the community, which could have helped them with transport and a place to stay.7
In addition to contributing to lower levels of social capital, socioeconomic and demographic factors impact community resilience in other ways, including the level of prevention and preparation that is undertaken. In Bangladesh, for example, people tend to have a fatalistic attitude to the regular cyclones and floods that impact their country. Their philosophy of what will be, will be means that they do little or nothing to mitigate or prepare for natural hazards.8
Socioeconomic and demographic factors also have a direct correlation to the extent of damage and number of fatalities that result from natural hazards. This is evident when comparing the February 2010 Chilean earthquake with the earthquake that struck Haiti several weeks earlier. Although the Chilean earthquake was significantly stronger than the Haiti earthquake (8.8 compared to 7 on the Richter scale), the death toll, numbers of displaced people and impact on infrastructure were magnitudes higher in Haiti. Chile was comparatively fortunate in that its earthquake was centred offshore in a relatively unpopulated, but it also had on its side the fact that it is “wealthier and infinitely better prepared, with strict building codes, robust emergency response and a long history of handling seismic catastrophes”.9
Whilst knowledge and firsthand experience of past natural hazards can be valuable when it comes to community resilience, it can also be detrimental by causing complacency and an unwillingness to collaborate with emergency services. For example, during the January 2011 floods in Brisbane (Australia) some city residents who had experienced the January 1974 floods ignored emergency services advice and chose not to evacuate or prepare their household for floodwater inundation simply because they were not affected all those years ago.10
Even though we’ve barely scratched the surface of this extensive topic, we hope you have a deeper appreciation of resilience and what it means for communities in the context of natural hazards. According to the ethos of our company name – Article 13 – which was taken from the original Rio conference, we will continue to explore mechanisms for building community resilience by going beyond education and awareness to create change.
- National Strategy for Disaster Resilience: Building our nation’s resilience to disasters, COAG
- Strategic National Framework on Community Resilience, UK Cabinet Office / Exploring community resilience in times of rapid change, CarnegieUK Trust and Fiery Spirits Community of Practice
- “A framework for community safety and resilience in the face of disaster risk”, International Federation for Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), November 2008
- Exploring community resilience in times of rapid change, CarnegieUK Trust and Fiery Spirits Community of Practice
- Student Volunteer Army, Christchurch earthquakes, nzherald.co.nz / Mud Army, Brisbane flood, couriermail.com.au / Cumbria floods 2009, Exploring community resilience in times of rapid change, CarnegieUK Trust and Fiery Spirits Community of Practice
- Queensland Police Service: Disaster Management and Social Media – a case study
- A friend in need, Thomas H Sander, The Boston Globe (boston.com News), 14 November 2005
- “A cross-cultural examination of risk perception and building community resilience”, Dr Valerie Ingham, Lecturer, Emergency Management, Charles Sturt University, Earth: Fire and Rain, Australia & New Zealand Disaster and Emergency Management Conference (ANZDMC), 16-18 April 2012
- “Chile-Haiti Earthquake Comparison: Chile Was More Prepared”, Frank Bajak, The Huffington Post, 27 February 2010
- “Could the 1974 flood happen again?”, Daniel Hurst, brisbanetimes.com.au, 13 October 2010 / “Brisbane forgets the lessons of 1974”, John Henzell, stuff.co.nz, 14 January 2011
© Article 13 - June 2012
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