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The Social Dimensions of Resilience

“The scale and the impact of disasters today can be greater than anything we’ve previously experienced,” said Laurie Mazur at the Wilson Center on March 18. “The proliferation of disasters has gotten a lot of people talking about resilience, about how we can lessen our risk and how we can recover more quickly from disasters of all kinds.”

Date & Time

Mar. 18, 2013
12:00pm – 2:00pm ET


5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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“The scale and the impact of disasters today can be greater than anything we’ve previously experienced,” said Laurie Mazur at the Wilson Center on March 18. “The proliferation of disasters has gotten a lot of people talking about resilience, about how we can lessen our risk and how we can recover more quickly from disasters of all kinds.”

Some of these discussions have revolved around physical infrastructure, she said. “How we can harden our defenses? How we can build stronger levies or higher sea walls?”

“What often gets missed in that conversation is the social dimensions of resilience,” Mazur continued. In other words, what makes some communities recover from disasters more quickly and completely than others?

Characteristics of Strength…and Vulnerability

“Resiliency has many definitions but they almost always start with this idea of the ability to absorb and then recover,” said Dr. Betty Hearn Morrow, professor emeritus at Florida International University. But “when we start talking about social resiliency, now we’re getting into something that’s far more complicated – after all, people are involved.”

In addition to the ability to recover, social resilience “has to do with being ready, it has to do with adaptability, tenacity, our commitment to survive… and the willingness of communities to actually rally around a common cause and a shared set of values.”

Morrow drew from examples of communities that have not responded well to disasters to highlight elements of resilience.

One factor she emphasized was the importance of accurately understanding risk. This is very hard for people, she said. For example, she found that almost 50 percent of people living in areas vulnerable to storm surge from North Carolina to Texas thought that such surges were not very or not at all likely to hit their homes. The pervasiveness of this kind of misinformation can be a significant cause of mortality when natural disasters strike; families who don’t believe they are at risk won’t leave before a storm strikes.

For some, however, it is lack of capacity that makes them vulnerable. There is “unequal exposure to risk” among economic classes, Morrow said. “More poor people live in flood plains than anyone else,” for example, and they have fewer resources to cope if and when a disaster does strike. Some 100,000 people in New Orleans lacked transportation during Hurricane Katrina, for instance, unable to leave the city on their own, she said. “Community resilience and sustainability are certainly tied to how we use our resources, how they are distributed,” she said.

Resilient communities, on the other hand, also have specific characteristics. “Social networks and connections are so incredibly important,” Morrow said. One Vietnamese community in New Orleans stayed connected through a single Catholic priest, who acted as a node of communication and organization, even after evacuation. One year after the storm, 90 percent of the 900-strong parish had returned to the city. That return percentage was “pretty unheard of,” Morrow said.

Bringing Population to Climate Projections

Dr. Elizabeth Malone of the Joint Global Change Research Institute began studying social resilience after working on a study measuring vulnerability to climate change.

Instead of continually focusing on a “deficit concept” like vulnerability, she thought it might be better to study the strengths of communities and societies.

Malone decided to look into a component of climate change resilience that has been infrequently studied: family planning. The climate change community has generally used population projections uncritically, she noted, without considering what the impact of higher or lower fertility would be on communities impacted by climate change. (The most common usage is citing the UN’s medium variant world population projection as fact.) But future population projections are dependent on many factors that are subject to change, like contraception prevalence rate, and in turn, changes in population dynamics can change important assumptions about climate change too.

Malone decided to measure the economic growth and resilience of seven countries under two population scenarios to see the differences: the medium population growth projected by the United Nations and a scenario in which each country will achieve universal access to family planning by 2050. Resilience was measured by combining food security (factors like cereal yield and malnutrition prevalence for children under five) and environmental capacity variables (population density, percent of agricultural land area, and population in the largest city as a percentage of the urban population).

Looking at Bangladesh, Nepal, Haiti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda, she found that in all of them, resilience was higher under the universal family planning scenario than under the medium population projections.

For Malone though, the primary value of the study was not in its predictions or policy prescriptions but in the questions it prompted: “Where is resilience principally located in a country? Where do things need to be worked on?”

Studying climate change and population together encourages interaction between two fields that can otherwise remain relatively isolated, she said. “If we look at resilience under climate change, we’re taking a very narrow look at it. If we look at simply population scenarios and how they change, that’s a very narrow look, too. But together I think that it tells us something about development in general.”

Thinking Long Term, Access to Family Planning Is a Focus

“When Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast last fall, I think it was something of a teachable moment for a lot of people about our increasing vulnerability to disaster,” said Mazur. “And there have been a lot of those moments lately.”

Roger-Mark De Souza of Population Action International (PAI) started his presentation with such a teachable moment: “I was actually in Bangladesh when Hurricane Sandy hit,” he said. “My colleagues in Bangladesh looked at me and said, ‘You Americans – what’s the big deal? In Bangladesh, we face the risk of superstorms every day!’”

“At PAI, we believe that if you want to respond to critical development issues, like climate change, that you need to address the social dimensions of resilience,” De Souza said. “If you want to address climate change and you only look at mitigation, you are missing some of the important components.”

“Because we are a family planning organization, our point of departure is that family planning is important and matters for building resilience to climate change,” he said. Allowing couples to decide how many children they have leads to “investments in education and technology, providing opportunities for additional economic growth, enhanced development, and ultimately helping to build resilience and adaptive capacity.”

De Souza said that PAI’s success in combining family planning advocacy with longer-term resilience efforts has been greatly dependent on the country.

In Malawi, for example, PAI has a close relationship with both the Minister of Health and the Minister of the Environment, providing them with the opportunity to present research on climate change, gender, and family planning directly to high-level policymakers. “This was a really good example of a policy window opening up where we brought these various elements together,” said De Souza, but having this kind of access to policymakers is “a little unusual.”

PAI’s work in the Philippines was shaped by the recent passage of a reproductive health bill which provides free contraception to poor women (although enactment of the bill has been temporarily frozen by order of the Philippine Supreme Court). Access to contraceptives in Manila, the capital of more than 1.6 million people, has been severely restricted since an executive order banning them from city-run clinics in 2000, and access to contraceptives is low across the country. PAI helped bring together policymakers to discuss the opportunities presented by the new bill, which was and is the subject of a furious national debate, including the ramifications it will have on adaptation to climate change.

He added that although many of the regions PAI works in are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, they have made a concerted decision to work on building long-term resilience – in part due to feedback from communities.

“Resilience Is In Us”

As climate change brews bigger, more destructive storms and population growth and urbanization cluster more people in urban areas, society’s vulnerability to disasters is growing.

But “it’s important to keep in mind that humans are nothing if not resilient,” said Mazur. The lessons humanity has learned from past disasters remain “in our most enduring social structures” and will help us cope with future changes.

“Resilience is in us,” she said. “It’s something that we can cultivate in ourselves, in our families, in our communities, and it’s my hope that the ‘teachable moments’ of the future will encourage us to build societies that reinforce rather than undermine our native resilience.”

Drafted by Carolyn Lamere, edited by Schuyler Null


Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

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