The need for resilience? Just about everywhere

A view of Long Island in New York after Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast of the United States in October 2012. Even some of the world's most advanced economies are also among the most at risk for natural and manmade hazards. In the U.S. over 60 percent of its population is exposed to natural hazards. Photo by: The Legacy Center / UNISDR / CC BY-NC-ND

Some of the world’s most advanced economies are also among the most at risk for natural and manmade hazards, according to a recently released data set by risk consultancy firm Verisk Maplecroft. The data show that the need for resilience planning cuts across economic lines, experts say.

Economic growth may “not necessarily translate ... into robust policies to achieve rapid development in terms of building resilience at the societal level on natural hazards,” Richard Hewston, principal analyst at Verisk Maplecroft's environment and climate change team and head of the data set's development, told Devex.

“What we found within a lot of countries — rapidly growing economies — is that they perform quite well economically but still lack in the governance and societal pillar,” he said.

South Asia remains the most exposed region to natural hazards, with nearly 1.4 billion people — or 85 percent of the region's population — facing significant threats from risks including earthquakes, flooding and severe storms. But developed countries including the United States and Japan remain highly vulnerable too.

Over 60 percent of the U.S. population is exposed to natural hazards, while 96 percent of Japan’s 126 million people — who have already suffered with hazards like tsunamis and earthquakes in the past — are at risk.

Other countries that made the list for the greatest number of people exposed (by quantity) include India with 1 billion, China with 677 million, Indonesia with 230 million, Nigeria with 174 million, and Brazil with 151 million, among others.

Given the widespread risk, governments, companies and communities must all consider their preparedness, according to the firm. Aside from humanitarian concerns, firms can see significant business losses from external shocks.

“I think that the rhetoric of disaster risk reduction holds for governments, communities, businesses or agencies across the board is understanding what your exposure is [and] what types of natural hazards do you face,” Hewston said. “Then you need to understand what the drivers of risks are. Once you understand that exposure, you can then develop strategies to mitigate the impacts of a [natural] hazard event.”

James Allan, environment director at Verisk Maplecroft, added that “companies have an increasing responsibility to understand their exposure and work with governments to build resilience” amid the growing investment figures in countries where the vulnerability risk are also highest.

Understanding vulnerability

Having a proper mitigation and preparation strategy for natural and man-made hazards starts with understanding of what vulnerabilities exist, according to Hewston.

Anywhere experiencing a “diminished ability of individuals, communities, the private sector and the public sector to prepare for, respond to, and recover from the impact of a natural hazard event” is at risk, by the firm’s definition.

Focusing on resilience early on allows a country to not only prepare for a disaster or hazardous event — whether natural or man-made — but also to bounce back better and in a more efficient and sustainable manner once it occurs.

Chile and Haiti, for example, both experienced devastating earthquakes in 2010 but casualty numbers were vastly different, with 525 dead recorded in the South American nation and over 160,000 perishing in the Caribbean nation’s tremor.

Governments and other development stakeholders can lower people's vulnerabilities and risk exposure through education, Hewston argued. “As more people understand about hazards, they are well educated so the less vulnerable they are because they know what to do in these [scenarios],” he said.

Resilience is the new sustainability

Experts on resilience planning say looking at vulnerabilities in a holistic way can offer a stronger guide than the current focus some countries and companies have on sustainability.

“We need to think in an evolving frame or approach to development and humanitarian practice that’s very much along the same lines of sustainability but taking it to the next level,” Stephen Latham, an instructor at Northwest University’s international community development graduate program told Devex. “Resilience to me is the new sustainability.”

Latham, who also worked as a resilience advisor for World Vision’s Latin American and Caribbean regional operations, said that sustainability approaches largely focus on three thematic areas — environmental, social, and economic — something he considers “too simplistic” especially in an increasingly more vulnerable environment that development stakeholders live and operate in.

“Resilience allows designs that enable [people and communities] to bounce back better, absorb the shocks, and not only survive but also to thrive in the face of adversity,” he said. “So I think it’s got more teeth to it.”

That conclusion seems to be increasingly shared; resilience is mentioned 24 times in the Sustainable Development Goals. Latham says this is a good indication of the increasing interest in resilience in global discussions, though more advocacy is still needed to see results on the ground.

After all, as Latham concluded: “You can have development that’s sustainable but not resilient, but you can’t have development that’s resilient but not sustainable.”

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.