Resilience in the face of increasing risk and uncertainty


September 14th, 2017

Practical Action’s strategic plan 2017-2020 states “Our vision is for a world where all people have access to the technologies that enable them to meet their basic needs and reach their potential, in a way that safeguards the planet today, and for future generations”. But with development gains being eroded by natural hazards, I sometimes wonder if we are fighting a losing battle?

Volunteers rescuing people in Bardiya, Nepal Photo: Nepal Flood Resilience Project

According to the Economist, there are now 400 extreme weather events every year, four times as many as in 1970[1]. A trend demonstrated vividly by the extensive flooding in South Asia and the impacts of the current North Atlantic hurricane season with the devastation caused by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Although Practical Action does not work in developed countries, the fact that cities in the United States, cities with planning agencies, building regulations and investment in mitigation, have been devastated by natural hazards demonstrates the increase in climate risk for communities in the developing world, that lack similar government capacity and struggle with limited budgets.

In a world of increasing risk, resilience is a useful concept to explore the capacities, assets and behaviours that people, their communities and the societies in which they belong, need to be resilient to shocks and stresses. But resilience itself as an outcome of development, may be foolhardy to pursue.

Practical Action recognises that technology is a key enabler of human development, that technological innovation has the power to enable a better world. Technology can advance the adaptive capacity of communities to cope with risk. For example a community protected by an Early Warning System have access to the information to allow them to act in advance of a flood event. As more EWS messages are received and successful responses are triggered, the community starts to learn what behaviour keeps them safe and the actions needed to limit the destruction of the flood event. Access to knowledge and information and their increased safety, nurtures experiential learning, they start to learn how to live with the flood.

In a world in which there is no clear endpoint for development, in which resilience becomes ever more distant, enabling communities to experiment, to learn and adapt their lives and livelihoods will be vital if they are to survive and flourish. Resilience as an outcome is dangerous, it suggests an end state of resilience, whereas resilience is more dynamic. Resilience must consider the role of culture and human agency, and that the development aims of all people, communities and countries need not necessarily align to the same outcome. What builds the resilience of a farmer with a tractor may not be the same as what would build the resilience of a farmer dependent on livestock for motive power. Different vulnerabilities, different contexts, stress the need for different resilience building processes. We must stop focussing on the outcome of resilience and instead concentrate on learning from what we are doing, be brave enough to adapt when things start to diverge from the expected, and most importantly we mustn’t forget that it’s ok to learn from failure.

[1] https://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2017/08/daily-chart-19

Find out more…

See more of our work on the Flood Resilience Portal. This portal provides practitioners who live and work in flood-affected communities with easy access to the resources they need to build resilience to floods. This is part of the ongoing global Zurich Flood Resilience Programme.

Or learn about the difference made by Practical Action resilience programmes during the 2017 flash floods and landslides in Nepal and what this revealed about disaster preparedness.

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