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Asian Development Bank

Chapter 1.5 Introduction

Resilience

Photo: Asian Development Bank

In recent years, the concept of resilience has become prominent in development and humanitarian debate and policy. It is widely seen as a useful organising concept that can be applied across different sectors and disciplines, helping to break down the boundaries between them. Resilience seeks to strengthen capacities to cope with a wide range of threats, both anticipated and unforeseen. DRR is a key part of resilience-building.

Like vulnerability, resilience is a complex and multifaceted idea applied to dealing with different kinds and severities of risk, shock, stress and environmental change. Resilience and vulnerability are often seen as opposites, but this view is restrictive and somewhat simplistic. Both are relative terms: it is necessary to ask what it is that particular individuals, communities and systems are vulnerable or resilient to, to what extent, in what ways and why this is so. Resilience is related to capacity, but is a broader concept that goes beyond the specific resources, plans and actions normally understood as capacities. However, in everyday usage the terms ‘resilience’ and ‘capacity’ are sometimes used quite loosely and interchangeably. Resilience has also been understood both as a desired outcome (a safe and resilient community) and as a process leading to that outcome (enabling individuals, communities and institutions to adapt and move towards resilience).

Box 1.4 Defining resilience

Many attempts have been made to define and explain what ‘resilience’ means in different contexts. This has led to a variety of concepts and definitions. For operational purposes, DRR and development agencies often find it more useful to work with more straightforward or widely accepted definitions expressing commonly understood features of resilience. One such definition of resilience is:

The ability of a system and its component parts to anticipate, absorb, accommodate, or recover from the effects of a hazardous event in a timely and efficient manner, including through ensuring the preservation, restoration, or improvement of its essential basic structures and functions.+IPCC, Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters To Advance Climate Change Adaptation: Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), http://ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/report

Some organisations choose to work out their own understanding of resilience, matched to their own work and organisational goals. The UK Department for International Development (DFID) defines disaster resilience as:

The ability of countries, communities and households to manage change, by maintaining or transforming living standards in the face of shocks or stresses – such as earthquakes, drought or violent conflict – without compromising their long-term prospects.+DFID, Defining Disaster Resilience: A DFID Approach Paper (London: Department for International Development, 2011), https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/186874/defining-disaster-resilience-approach-paper.pdf, p. 6.

(See also Box 1.1: Disaster terminology)

A disaster resilience perspective should be holistic. All relevant aspects and issues should be taken into account to produce a comprehensive analysis of disaster-related problems. This will support the development of coherent, wide-ranging strategies and programmes involving a variety of complementary and mutually supporting interventions, with the aim of moving people permanently out of vulnerability. Such an approach contrasts with more conventional disaster programming, which has often focused only on specific hazards and discrete aspects of vulnerability and resilience. Figure 1.5 (DFID’s Resilience Framework) is a visualisation of such a holistic perspective; many other agencies have developed similar frameworks of their own.

Figure 1.5 DFID’s Resilience Framework

ODI 2015

DFID’s Resilience Framework

DFID, Defining Disaster Resilience: A DFID Approach Paper (London: Department for International Development, 2011), https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/186874/defining-disaster-resilience-approach-paper.pdf, p. 7.

Resilience thinking encourages a systems approach to enable a better understanding of how different types of system (e.g. ecological, socio-economic, technological, political) interact with one another, and the connections and interactions between different elements within particular systems (e.g. between electricity supplies and railway services in a public transport system). Systems and system interactions can be very complex: a good example of this is the relationship between ecosystems and human systems, which is a significant factor in disaster risk and vulnerability (see Box 1.4: Disasters and ecosystems). Disasters often result from multiple and interacting failures within a system. In New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, a complex urban system failed because of a combination of factors, including the widespread failure of flood defences, ineffective emergency planning and response, weaknesses in disaster governance, high levels of exposure to risk and deep-rooted socio-economic vulnerability and marginalisation (the last two factors the result of the city’s historic patterns of growth and development).+L. Comfort, ‘Cities at Risk: Hurricane Katrina and the Drowning of New Orleans’, Urban Affairs Review, 41(4), 2006. Resilience approaches and systems thinking help agencies to understand and deal with such complex situations. Projects and programmes cannot manage everything, but they can assess where they will be most effective, identify the best entry or leverage points, build relationships with other key stakeholders and coordinate different types of intervention that stimulate more widespread and lasting system changes.

Box 1.5 Disasters and ecosystems

Risk and vulnerability are linked not only to environmental hazards but also to the environment more generally. Human and ecological systems are interdependent and human actions can have a significant impact on ecosystems. Environmental degradation increases hazard risk and contributes to vulnerability. For example, the removal of trees, bushes and other vegetation in the course of building, farming or other commercial activities can create hazardous conditions. It accelerates the loss of fertile topsoil to wind and water erosion. Water is no longer held in the soil by vegetation and so runs away rapidly, increasing vulnerability to drought. On hillsides, rapid water run-off can cause flash floods and landslides, which in turn silts up rivers and may cause flooding further downstream. In coastal zones, the destruction of mangrove forests for commercial development removes a natural barrier to the winds and sea surges created by tropical cyclones. Overgrazing and over-cultivation of land can exhaust soils. Building on flood plains reduces the capacity of the ground to absorb rainfall, increasing the likelihood of flooding.

Ecosystem management can make an important contribution to disaster reduction. Healthy ecosystems provide protection against hazards: for example, wetlands such as marshes and swamps store water and provide an outlet for floodwaters; coral reefs and sand dunes protect shorelines. Productive ecosystems support sustainable livelihoods and income-generating activities, and they can be important assets for communities in the aftermath of disasters. Natural resources can be managed and replenished through measures such as reforestation and other planting, waste management, environmentally sustainable farming and grazing practices, terracing and building protective stone and earthworks to prevent rapid water run-off.

Attempts to protect the environment often challenge powerful people who stand to gain from its destruction: it can be difficult and even dangerous to make such challenges. More generally, economic and demographic pressures on poor countries, coupled with entrenched political and cultural attitudes, inhibit effective responses to environmental crises.

Resilience is clearly helpful in enabling DRR organisations to identify their vision and direction. However, some find it a challenge to understand exactly what it means in practice and how it can be applied to their work.+For a discussion of these issues, see A. Pain and S. Levine, A Conceptual Analysis of Livelihoods and Resilience: Addressing the ‘Insecurity of Agency’ (London: Overseas Development Institute, 2012), http://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/7928.pdf. Resilience-building is a new approach and organisations have much to learn about resilience programming in practice. Some so-called ‘resilience’ projects seem to be no different from previous forms of intervention: they represent re-branding rather than re-thinking. Resilience has also been criticised for not paying enough attention to power relations within communities and societies: one group or community may become more resilient at the expense of another because it has more resources and choices. For this reason, it has been suggested that one aim of resilience initiatives should be social transformation and the reduction of inequalities.

Table 1.1 Some key DRR terms

UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Extreme Events and Disasters
Adaptation: The adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities. Adaptation: In human systems, the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects, in order to moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities. In natural systems, the process of adjustment to actual climate and its effects; human intervention may facilitate adjustment to expected climate.
Adaptive capacity: The combination of the strengths, attributes, and resources available to an individual, community, society or organisation that can be used to prepare for and undertake actions to reduce adverse impacts, moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities.
Capacity: The combination of all the strengths, attributes and resources available within a community, society or organisation that can be used to achieve agreed goals. Capacity: The combination of all the strengths, attributes and resources available to an individual, community, society or organisation, which can be used to achieve established goals.
Climate change: (Cites IPCC and UNFCCC definitions) Climate change: A change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g. by using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. Climate change may be due to natural internal processes or external forcings, or to persistent anthropogenic changes in the composition of the atmosphere or in land use.
Disaster: A serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society involving widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses and impacts, which exceeds the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources. Disaster: Severe alterations in the normal functioning of a community or a society due to hazardous physical events interacting with vulnerable social conditions, leading to widespread adverse human, material, economic, or environmental effects that require immediate emergency response to satisfy critical human needs and that may require external support for recovery.
Disaster risk: The potential disaster losses, in lives, health status, livelihoods, assets and services, which could occur to a particular community or a society over some specified future time period. Disaster risk: The likelihood over a specified time period of severe alterations in the normal functioning of a community or a society due to hazardous physical events interacting with vulnerable social conditions, leading to widespread adverse human, material, economic or environmental effects that require immediate emergency response to satisfy critical human needs and that may require external support for recovery.
Disaster risk management: The systematic process of using administrative directives, organisations and operational skills and capacities to implement strategies, policies and improved coping capacities in order to lessen the adverse impacts of hazards and the possibility of disaster. Disaster risk management: Processes for designing, implementing and evaluating strategies, policies and measures to improve the understanding of disaster risk, foster disaster risk reduction and transfer, and promote continuous improvement in disaster preparedness, response and recovery practices, with the explicit purpose of increasing human security, well-being, quality of life, resilience and sustainable development.
Disaster risk reduction: The concept and practice of reducing disaster risks through systematic efforts to analyse and manage the causal factors of disasters, including through reduced exposure to hazards, lessened vulnerability of people and property, wise management of land and the environment and improved preparedness for adverse events. Disaster risk reduction: Denotes both a policy goal or objective, and the strategic and instrumental measures employed for anticipating future disaster risk; reducing existing exposure, hazard, or vulnerability; and improving resilience.
Emergency: a threatening condition that requires urgent action.
Emergency management: The organisation and management of resources and responsibilities for addressing all aspects of emergencies, in particular preparedness, response and initial recovery steps.
Exposure: People, property, systems or other elements present in hazard zones that are thereby subject to potential losses. Exposure: The presence of people; livelihoods; environmental services and resources; infrastructure; or economic, social, or cultural assets in places that could be adversely affected.
Extensive risk: The widespread risk associated with the exposure of dispersed populations to repeated or persistent hazard conditions of low or moderate intensity, often of a highly localised nature, which can lead to debilitating cumulative disaster impacts.
Hazard: A dangerous phenomenon, substance, human activity or condition that may cause loss of life, injury or other health impacts, property damage, loss of livelihoods and services, social and economic disruption or environmental damage. Hazard: The potential occurrence of a natural or human-induced physical event that may cause loss of life, injury or other health impacts, as well as damage and loss to property, infrastructure, livelihoods, service provision and environmental resources.
Resilience: The ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions. Resilience: The ability of a system and its component parts to anticipate, absorb, accommodate or recover from the effects of a hazardous event in a timely and efficient manner, including through ensuring the preservation, restoration or improvement of its essential basic structures and functions.
Risk: The combination of the probability of an event and its negative consequences.
Risk management: The systematic approach and practice of managing uncertainty to minimise potential harm and loss.
Vulnerability: The characteristics and circumstances of a community, system or asset that make it susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard. Vulnerability: The propensity or predisposition to be adversely affected.
2009 UNISDR Terminology on Disaster Risk Reduction (Geneva: UNISDR, 2009), http://www.unisdr.org/we/inform/publications/7817. IPCC, Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters To Advance Climate Change Adaptation: Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), http://ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/report. (Note that some of the definitions used in this report differ from those used in other IPCC publications.)