CEC Steering Committee member Brad Smith and Rebekah Green of Western Washington University offer this guest editorial on climate change and community resilience, from the October 2009 CEC e-newsletter. International organizations such as the IUCN play a crucial role in promoting and supporting community resilience. Especially important is the work of defining and promoting the integration of disaster reduction, ecosystem protection and management, and community livelihood development at the national, regional, and community level.
By Rebekah Green of Western Washington University and CEC Steering Committee member Bradley Smith, Dean, Huxley College of the Environment
Every day communities across the globe struggle to meet their livelihood needs in vastly different settings and stages of development. At the same time, natural hazards threaten the very social, physical, economic, and ecological foundations upon which their livelihoods have been developed. Sometimes these hazards exceed community capacity and disaster occurs. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept through depleted coastal wetlands and overtopped levees to flood New Orleans and destroy the communities so many families called home. In 2006, countless rural mountain villages in Pakistan’s northern territories crumbled in intense seismic shaking and then slid down denuded mountain slopes in tremendous landslides. Today, small-island states in the Pacific face rising seas and bleaching coral reefs as rapid development causes global changes to climate and sea temperature. Not all of these communities will recover from these disasters; those that are resilient will.
Resilience was first studied in the field of ecology, where Holling argued for an examination of ecosystem persistence in the face of external disturbance – changes in climate, influxes of nutrients, intense grazing, species invasion, and human intervention. To describe such persistence, Holling suggested two key parameters. The first was stability, or the ability of an ecosystem to return to equilibrium when perturbed. The second was ecological resilience, a measure of a system’s ability to absorb change and disturbance and still maintain the same relationships between populations. Most importantly, work in the ecology suggested that resilience and stability are uniquely different properties of a system – properties that can be at odds with one another.
More recently, the insights of ecological resilience have been applied to socio-ecological systems, such as communities faced with environmental hazards. In this context, community resilience is a measure of a community’s ability to absorb disturbance, organize and adapt in ways that continue to provide acceptable levels of community service or function. Resilient communities are those that can prepare for, adapt to, and effectively recovery from environmental hazards with minimal natural resource depletion and in ways that avoid producing or recreating vulnerability to future hazards.
Community resilience is no easy task. Communities the world over have often focused on decreasing the direct impacts of hazards, rather than ecological resilience. Much attention has been paid to engineering solutions for reducing loss and rapidly recovering from natural hazard events. Levees are promoted for flood control, stronger building codes for seismic resistance, fire suppression for wildfire risk, and retaining walls for landslides. While crucially important, these strategies attempt to ensure stability in the face of small and moderate scale hazards. Yet vulnerability to larger events remains and even increases. Communities expand behind protective levees and into wildland interfaces. Protection of forest cover and mangroves wanes. Public awareness and preparedness declines as fewer moderate disasters are experienced. Without actively promoting an ecological resilience approach to disasters, communities can too easily lose the redundancy of protective strategies necessary for buffering disasters and agilely adapting to change.
International organizations such as the IUCN play a crucial role in promoting and supporting community resilience. Especially important is the work of defining and promoting the integration of disaster reduction, ecosystem protection and management, and community livelihood development at the national, regional, and community level. This work entails enhanced efforts at community education around the mitigating effects of traditional ecological strategies for disaster risk. As risks such as climate change loom large on the global horizon, finding ways to enhance community resilience is emerging as a key strategy for facing current and future threats.
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