Building resilience to deal with disasters

Last week Science had a special issue on Dealing with Disasters with focus on the role of building or conserving resilience. The Tsunami disaster on 26 December 2005 clearly highlighted the vulnerability of coastal communities, and has triggered a global discussion on how to deal with increasingly severe natural and human induced catastrophes. Today humanity increase the risk for extreme events by simultaneously e.g. accelerating climate change, simplifying ecosystems, and concentrating human populations in coastal areas and cities.

In the special issue, Neil Adger and co-authors focus on coastal communities and explore their social-ecological resilience by looking at the diverse mechanisms they have developed for living with, and learning from, change and unexpected shocks. The authors also discuss the complexity of how resilience can be both increased and decreased through the same development. For example, global tourism increases the risk of infectious and vector borne diseases, but enhance resilience through the development of interlinked local communities, improved communications and the growth of national and international NGO network that link societies.

Allenby and Fink, highlights interesting aspects in relation to the resiliency of cities and network-centric organizations. They discuss the costs and opportunities with investing in resilience:

Some kinds of resiliency are primarily externalities, in that the protection gained provides almost no other benefits, whereas others are dual use and provide substantial economic benefits in addition to resiliency. For example, the communications systems provided to defense and national security organizations are commonly “hardened”; that is, additional technology provides protection against eavesdropping, destructive electromagnetic frequency pulses, and physical intrusion. This extra level of protection obviously adds cost to the system but not additional communications functionality (although the costs are presumably justified by the additional security obtained). In contrast, the creation of internal corporate intranets and support systems for virtual offices and telework capability, which diffuses information assets, can save firms money and make them more resilient against point attacks, as well as natural events such as epidemics.

They also discuss the change in resilience from a more and more dispersed and decentralized working force.

From the perspective of a city, policies that encourage a strong teleworking capability in local firms are ideal dual-use systems: They provide resiliency against disaster or attack, but many important ancillary benefits as well. An urban system with a large number of potential teleworkers can encourage working from home on bad air quality days, or during blizzards or other emergency conditions, or when unanticipated upsets in the traffic networks result in congestion. Moreover, an urban environment that encourages teleworking also provides a higher quality of life; AT&T’s data indicate that 81% of its teleworkers name better balance between work and family as a substantial benefit of the practice. Additionally, some argue that by enabling people to work in their neighborhoods, telework can enhance a sense of community and neighborhood security.

In a world of decreasing capacity of ecosystems to provide the resilience for society, new ways of building adaptive capacity needs to be explored. Two papers in the special issue focus on the role of insurance mechanisms to cope mainly with weather related disasters. Mills discusses the role of insurance in a “climate of change”, while Linnerooth-Bayer et al. discusses how donors can refocus disaster aid to help poor people be prepared before disasters happen.

the purpose of refocusing disaster aid is not to replace it with unaffordable private insurance but rather to complement post-disaster humanitarian aid with pre-disaster support of risk-management programs that combine prevention and risk transfer

Global Insurance Data
Figure from Mills paper showing declining insurance industry capacity to absorb weather-related natural disasters. Curves show ratio of global weather-related property losses to total property/casualty premiums over the past quarter-century, indexed to average 1980 levels.

After reading the papers, I can’t help but thinking that it is unfortunate that we live in a world where nature’s “insurance capacity” is being replaced at a high cost for society.

A question that might have a very expenisve answer is to what extent mechanisms like network-centered organisations, insurance and refocused disaster aid can help increase adaptive capacity of social-ecological systems when ecological resilience is decreasing.

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