Resilient Communities, Resilient Environments

14 April 2011 | News story

How we build, how we plan our communities, how we care for each other, and how we value and protect our natural environment can mean the difference between a minor emergency and a community catastrophe. Brad Smith of the IUCN CEC Steering Committee and Rebekah Green explain the concept of 'resilience'.

Bradley Smith, Dean of Huxley College of the Environment, Western Washington University
Rebekah Green, Associate Director of the Resilience Institute, Huxley College of the Environment, Western Washington University

With the horrors of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the issue of community resilience is once again in the news. Images of suffering, loss, and upheaval bring memories of similar disasters half a world away: Haiti’s recent earthquake, the levee failures of New Orleans, and last year’s devastating floods in Pakistan’s mountainous regions, to name only a few recent events. Many of us may look on with utter sympathy as communities struggle to repair and regroup after these disasters, while also privately questioning why people choose to live in such obviously dangerous places.

Why people live in hazard-prone places is a complex question. Some communities may be only partially aware of the environmental forces that work on seasonal, decadal, and centurial timescales. Some communities may have few economic resources to move away from or reduce vulnerabilities to such environmental hazards as floods, cyclones, earthquakes, and sea level rise. Others may have historic and cultural ties to a particular environment, or political boundaries that box them into particularly hazardous landscapes. Decision makers may see more advantages in rescuing disaster victims than in building safe communities before such events. Yet the question about why we humans live in dangerous places is not merely a question of cultural, economic, or political choice.

Many of the natural environments most conducive to human settlement are linked inextricably to natural hazard exposure. A map of human population distribution across the globe shows that we are concentrated in the tropics and mid-latitudes, but not evenly so. Human settlements clump along continental coastlines, generally leaving the centers of large continents less populated. Human settlements are sparse and small in the most mountainous regions, but are prevalent along the foothills of these ranges. The banks of major river systems are crowded with some of our oldest permanent human settlements.

Each of these environments brings nature’s bounty, but also exposure to natural hazards. The coastlines, sites of rich biodiversity and harvestable marine-based food sources, bring with them exposure to cyclone, sea level rise, and coastline erosion. Along the Pacific and Indian Ocean especially, coastlines bring the threat of infrequent, but powerful, tsunamis. River systems carry dissolved minerals and organic compounds from mountains to plains. The fertile land nourished by river systems support thriving agricultural centers around the world and the rivers provide an efficient means of transporting the agricultural bounty to coastal markets. Hubs of cultural and economic exchange - as diverse as Alexandria, New Orleans, Shanghai, Buenos Aires, and Kolkata - have formed at the deltas of major river systems, acting as links between distant coastal cities and inland river communities. Yet the banks of major river systems, with their fertile soil and inexpensive transportation, are sites of potentially destructive seasonal flooding. Delta cities experience the added threat of high winds and pounding surf brought on by periodic cyclones. Elsewhere, the base of the mountain ranges shake with seismic tremors, volcanic explosions, and sudden landslides, but also provide soils rich with minerals newly exposed by these events. Unpredictable wildfires sweep down from forested hillsides, threatening communities but also stimulating seed germination of valuable timber. We live in dangerous places because the hazards present there also provide the rich natural environments that sustain us.

Yet living in a hazard-prone area, as most of us do, does not mean we are relegated to perpetual suffering. Living with earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, wildfires, cyclones, and the like does not have to result in devastating loss of human life and overwhelming destruction of our built and natural environments. How we build, how we plan our communities, how we care for each other, and how we value and protect our natural environment can mean the difference between a minor emergency and a community catastrophe. When faced with the awe-inspiring forces of our natural environment, our communities need to be resilient.

Resilience is an ecological concept that has been adapted to sociological settings. Resilient communities are comprised of three basic characteristics. Firstly, resilient communities have sufficient buffering capacity. They can experience threats and still house, feed, and provide the livelihoods and positive social connections that signify vibrant communities. Secondly, these communities are able to reorganize and regroup when disturbed. When a wildfire burns down housing, a resilient community is able to temporarily shelter affected victims and swiftly move to rebuild appropriate permanent shelter. Thirdly, a resilient community has adaptive capacity, or the ability to learn and improve with each disturbance. A resilient community does not simply replace damaged roadways and factories after a destructive disaster. A resilient community examines its own vulnerabilities to natural hazards and rebuilds a community that will be safer in the next event, especially for its most vulnerable members. This may entail improving building codes, raising public awareness, restricting development in hazard-prone areas, and improving buffering capacities.

Resilient communities are not simply communities that have steered clear of hazard-prone locations, avoiding all possibility of environmental disturbances. Rather, resilient communities cope with, learn from, adapt to, and even benefit from the periodic natural hazards that are an integral part of the environment where they live. Resilient communities experience natural hazards, but are not devastated by them.

Communities around the globe are working to promote resilience. Over half of Bangladesh’s 160 million residents live with the threat of coastal flooding from the frequent cyclones that pummel the coastline during the annual monsoon season. Two decades ago, one of these cyclones killed 140,000 Bangladeshis. Through intensive efforts to build early warning systems, empower citizen response, and create elevated community shelters, community resilience has grown. In 2007, a massive cyclone once again slammed into the country. This time, the death toll was less than 10,000. Similarly, while hurricanes frequently buffet Caribbean nations with devastating results, in Cuba, fatalities are rare. The country has instituted highly coordinated evacuation plans, including moving animals and important material above flood levels, and even adapted planting and harvesting cycles around the hurricane season. Citizens engage in frequent hurricane drills and ensure that elderly, young, and disabled members receive assistance. Here and elsewhere, communities are finding new ways to better adapt to hazards from their natural environment. Others are returning to traditional adaptive strategies forgotten during recent periods of rapid development.

Resilience emphasizes our ability to learn, be creative, and adapt. What is often overlooked is the important role that environmental awareness and education plays in fostering a resilient community. Today, communities often view natural hazards such as floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, and cyclones as freak events or “acts of god.” Each event is dismissed as unique and unanticipated. Such a view contributes to a collective amnesia that prevents the emergence of resilience. Communities need to be encouraged to see these events as natural processes that both destroy and renew – processes to which our adjustment and acceptance is necessary.

Other times, communities may view these events as nature inappropriately encroaching upon human settlements. This view pits communities against the very environment that surrounds and sustains them. It often leads communities to prize solutions aimed at battling and subduing our forests, rivers, hillsides, and coastlines, while devaluing more adaptive strategies. In the past, we built levees, dammed rivers, and dredged channels to keep floodwaters within prescribed areas. While such actions have keep homes dry during modest flood events, they have encouraged residents to build in natural flood plains, increasing community exposure when exceptionally large floods overtop our levees. These dams, levees, and dredged channels have also deprived nearby land of nutrient-laden sediment and destroyed habitat for terrestrial and aquatic species. Similarly, we have suppressed wildfires to ensure that they do not encroach upon housing settlements. But, in suppressing wildfires, we have also stopped the natural processes by which old and diseased species are removed and nutrients are recycled into the soil. Unintentionally, a century of wildfire suppression has only increased the intensity and size of the wildfires that threaten us today.

Communities also need support in seeing the important protections that our environment provides us, if only we protect and nurture it. Mangroves and wetlands, the very ecosystems at risk of being cut down or paved over, are natural buffers to the very cyclones and floods that will devastate communities built in their place. For decades, the Gulf Coast wetlands have been crisscrossed with shipping canals and oil pipelines. New Orleans was left with a degraded wetland unable to absorb the pounding waves pushed ashore by Hurricane Katrina. The exclusive hotels built on the sandy beaches of tropical coastlines replace the mangroves that once protected coastal villages from tsunami and cyclone waves. Also lost in the mangrove destruction are the water purification, fish, and crustacean habitats that these unique ecological systems provided. We need to support, protect, and expand these important ecological systems so that they are robust enough to provide us with a buffer when a future natural hazard strikes.

Our communities’ exposure to natural hazards will be increasingly frequent in the coming decades. With our human population continuing to rise and increasing numbers congregating along coastlines, fault lines, and river boundaries, a greater number of humans are living harm’s way. These hazard-prone regions provide bountiful natural environments where we can find food, shelter, and engage in commerce. Yet we need to foster community resilience in order to address our vulnerability to the threats that are also part of these environments. Through continued community-wide education about our environment and the natural processes that sustain us, we can find ways to protect and enhance both our built and natural environment in mutually beneficial ways.