2014 promises to be a superlative year—and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Complex, “super” disasters like Super Typhoon Haiyan are becoming more frequent, more systemic, and more destructive. Global trends, from population dynamics to food, water, and energy scarcities, threaten to further complicate the playing field. But by finally getting serious about resilience—the much discussed buzzword of 2013—we might reduce our vulnerability, restore our communities, and build back better, rather than just picking up the pieces.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the word “resilience” was everywhere—even on the sides of buses touting New Jersey as “A State of Resilience.” But evidence of actual planning for resilience was scant. Resilience, the ability of human and natural systems to respond to change and sustain the key components of our lives that are necessary for human well-being, can be improved by reducing risk, responding quickly and efficiently to crises when they occur, and planning for these kinds of shocks.
First, we must understand the environmental and demographic trends that increase our vulnerability. The areas of the Philippines hit by Haiyan, for example, had high population densities in vulnerable coastal and urban areas and degraded coastal forests and mangroves, leaving more people than ever exposed to the brunt of the typhoon’s storm surge. Similarly, the coastal communities devastated by Sandy were long ago stripped of their protective wetlands and natural contours by development.
Three key trends will continue to drive global insecurity in 2014:
- Population dynamics: The world is projected to add another 82 million people this year, 24 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa, where total fertility rates continue to outpace the rest of the world. In parts of the Middle East and Asia, changing age structures and ethno-religious demographic shifts will affect the potential for conflict and thus the ability of communities to respond to shocks, both natural and manmade.
- Climate change impacts: We will continue to experience climate change-related shocks, including quick hits—floods, disease outbreaks, and food price increases—and slower-burning ones like drought, food price volatility, and environmental degradation. The impacts of these shocks on the poorest and most vulnerable will increase both in intensity and frequency. This year more attention will be paid to how developed and emerging middle-income countries (Brazil, India, China) can mitigate those impacts by curbing their emissions or by providing meaningful assistance through climate-resilient development programs.
- The food-water-energy nexus: Today, one in eight people in the world suffer from chronic hunger, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa, where one in five are undernourished. About 1.2 billion people live in areas of water scarcity. More than 1.3 billion people don’t have electricity, and about 2.6 billion use wood and other solid fuels for cooking, leading to deforestation and illness from indoor air pollution. In these already stressed communities, more shocks will lead to even poorer health and slower economic growth. But these impacts will not just affect the poorest. An estimated 20 percent of today’s global economic output is based in countries that will face high risks from the impacts of climate change by the year 2025. The interconnected economy means the effects of complex crises will ripple around the world.
So how do we make resilience a reality?
- Technology is key: We must link innovations in manufacturing, energy, and computing with the social trends--such as urbanization, educational transformations, and demographic shifts--that increase our vulnerability but also provide opportunities for solutions. In 2014, we will see new number-crunching and social technologies that will allow us to leapfrog traditional barriers and deepen community resilience through crowd-sourced communications, participatory decision-making, and responsive resource management. These technological innovations, however, must be accompanied by sincere efforts to build trust and support networks within and across communities to form a strong foundation for building resilience.
- Flexibility is essential: Bureaucratic “stovepipes” plague many of the organizations tasked with preparing for and responding to these all-encompassing “super” emergencies. We must create more flexible and creative modes of analysis and streams of funding. We need greater coordination across humanitarian assistance and development programs, including better and more streamlined coordination among first responders, such as the military, and those with long-term interests, including the private sector. We also need to approach these issues on multiple timescales: We must provide opportunities to build and rebuild, even as we plan for future shocks including conflict. A recent report by Mercy Corps, for example, finds that incorporating conflict management methods into local governance structures can help improve communities’ resilience to disasters, conflict, and other shocks.
- Health is everything: A resilient community is a healthy one. While the United States expands healthcare to millions of people within its borders, millions more in developing countries still lack access to clean water, basic sanitation, family planning, and maternal health care. People living with HIV/AIDS, undernourished children, girls who walk miles to fetch water, and women who can’t space their children are intensely vulnerable to abrupt shocks, such as severe disasters. But these are problems that can be addressed. For example, the countries and donors that committed more than US$2.6 billion at 2012’s London Summit on Family Planning are rolling out plans to help an estimated 120 million more women gain access to contraceptives by 2020.
For 2014, we need a clear path to sustainability in the face of climate change, population growth, political instability, and increased energy demands. We need to link our technology to the trends, be flexible when designing research and funding programs, and improve basic healthcare for the poor. In 2014, let’s get real about resilience.
Photo Credit: Destruction in Tacloban City, Philippines, after Typhoon Haiyan, courtesy of Erik De Castro/Reuters via Mans Unides.