Bouncing Forward

Bridges vol. 42, December 2014 / IIASA

By: Kathryn Platzer, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)          

A unique alliance between leading humanitarian and development NGOs, IIASA, and the private sector will help build flood resilience in communities across the globe

Floods are the most devastating natural hazard globally. In order to operationalize, measure, and help build the resilience of communities to floods, IIASA is participating in the innovative Flood Resilience Alliance launched by Zurich Insurance. This extensive research project brings together IIASA’s expertise on risk modeling and systems science with the on-the-ground presence of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the international development NGO, Practical Action, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center.

The goal of the Flood Resilience Allianc is to find innovative ways to reduce risk before a flood strikes. NGO collaborators will use IIASA findings to design and implement interventions to benefit communities. IIASA’s truly cross-cutting effort involves three IIASA programs: Risk, Policy and Vulnerability; Ecosystems Services and Management; and Water.

The Alliance is working with communities in Mexico, Nepal, Indonesia, and Peru. As Reinhard Mechler, IIASA’s scientific lead for the project, explains: “IIASA is designing advanced modeling techniques that are robust, user driven, and user friendly. The work and findings will not only help communities directly at risk, but also eventually support local, national, and international policy makers, NGOs, and donors worldwide.”

The world faces increasing risks as globalization connects people, economies, and ecosystems. Globally, the number of people exposed to floods each year is increasing more quickly than the population. People are drawn to live on flood plains partly because of economic opportunity, and it is increasingly recognized that communities cannot totally avoid risks.

To date, the development and the disaster risk management (DRM) communities have relied on a mixture of interventions to help communities cope with flooding: “hard” interventions like building a dam or flood evacuation routes and, to a much lesser extent, “smart and soft” interventions like land use planning, insurance, and early warning systems.

Flood risk management is dominated by single interventions, many of which fail to accomplish their objectives because they do not consider the broader socioeconomic system within which they operate. In some instances, interventions can even be counterproductive for resilience, inadvertently undermining development or actually increasing risk in another way.

The Flood Resilience Alliance is using a participatory and iterative approach to develop sustainable portfolios of interventions that tackle flood risk and development objectives in synergy.

Adriana Keating, IIASA’s Flood Resilience Alliance project manager, notes: “The strategies communities use to pursue their development and well-being objectives have a profound impact on risk. Likewise, the way a community approaches its disaster risk has a profound impact on development and well-being. The trick is to get these two working in a virtuous cycle, rather than undermining each other.”

And Mechler adds: “A proper understanding of resilience in qualitative and quantitative terms has been lacking in resilience research to date. Arguably, this is why there has been little concrete, measurable progress on the ground. The new initiative focuses on benchmarking and tracking the underlying sources of resilience and the long-term outcomes.” 

For the flood-prone communities involved in the study, this means shedding light on why one community may fare better than another in the same disaster, despite seemingly identical levels of development and vulnerability.

According to Keating: “With the information and resources acquired in this work, communities will not just be able to bounce back after a disaster. They’ll be able to actually bounce forward in terms of making progress on important development objectives, such as increasing and strengthening livelihoods and building requisite infrastructure.” 

IIASA researchers conceptualize disaster resilience as “the ability of a system, community, or society to pursue its social, ecological, and economic development and growth objectives, while managing its disaster risk over time in a mutually reinforcing way.” This understanding of resilience stresses that a resilient community is one that can not only survive and recover from disaster events, but actually thrive in the face of these events and continue to strive toward new opportunities as risks change.

The project’s approach to resilience is to focus on the outcomes of actions for people’s well-being. Well-being goes beyond wealth to encompass the social, human, environmental, physical, and financial capitals and capacities that make up the community system.

Further information 

Keating A, Campbell K, Mechler R, Michek Kerjan E, Mochizuki J, Kunreuther H, Bayer J, Hanger S, McCallum I, See L, Williges K, Atreya A, Botzen W, Collier B, Czajkowski J, Hochrainer Stigler S, Egan C (2014). Operationalizing Resilience Against Natural Disaster Risk: Opportunities, Barriers, and a Way Forward.       White Paper, Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance. 

Kundzewicz ZW, Kanae S, Seneviratne SI, Handmer J, Nicholls N, Peduzzi P, Mechler R, Bouwer LM, Arnell N, Mach K, Muir Wood R, Brakenridge GR, Kron W, Benito G, Honda Y, Takahashi K, Sherstyukov B (2014). Flood risk and climate change: Global and regional perspectives. Hydrological Sciences Journal 59(1):1–28. [doi:10.1080/02626667.2013.857411].

Reinhard Mechler This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Adriana Keating This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) is an independent scientific institute that studies problems that are too large or too complex to be solved by a single country or academic discipline. IIASA is based in Austria and its international research covers broad areas of energy and climate, food and water, and poverty and equity. IIASA is located in Austria near Vienna and is sponsored by its National Member Organizations in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America. To view the original article click here.