Over the past decade, there has been an increase in the frequency and severity of hazards such as droughts, flooding and cyclones. The impacts of disasters on development, poverty and vulnerability have led to calls for improving disaster resilience – meaning the capacity of households, communities and countries to cope with and adapt to the shocks and stresses associated with natural hazards.
There is emerging evidence that disaster resilience has been effective in saving lives and protecting infrastructure, livelihoods, social systems and the environment, and that building disaster resilience is more cost-effective and sustainable than the present combination of disaster relief and development aid. While the terminology of disaster resilience is relatively new and remains debated, it is already embedded in international policy frameworks for humanitarian action.
This topic guide focuses on resilience to natural hazards, with emphasis on humanitarian action, in fragile and conflict-afflicted states as well as in other contexts. Although some principles are common to both contexts, there remains a high level of uncertainty about how to build resilience in adverse political economies.
In practical terms, resilience is neither an alternative to intervention nor a new paradigm that stands alone, but an increasingly important component of a holistic approach to reducing the impact of disasters on the most vulnerable. Evidence suggests that the following tools and approaches can be useful for building disaster resilience:
- Analysing and measuring resilience: A number of tools are available, including DFID’s (2011a) framework which highlights the relevance of exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity; and Twigg’s (2009) indicators for governance, risk assessment, knowledge and education, risk management and vulnerability reduction, and disaster preparedness and response.
- Supporting the enabling environment and government action: Disaster resilience can be strengthened when donors and governments adopt a multi-level, multi-stakeholder approach to risk governance. Connecting interventions that take place at different scales and levels has proven essential. National policies need to support equitable access to resources, strong risk management, long-term plans for resilience, and advocacy for the interests of at-risk populations.
- Supporting adaptive capacities: Experience suggests that practitioners can draw on communities’ disaster resilience most successfully when they tailor interventions to local contexts, ensure the meaningful participation of at-risk groups, and mainstream gender in programming. Inclusiveness and participation can be challenging and require a keen understanding of the opportunities and risks for less powerful social groups.
- Adapting to context: Different types of crises will involve different challenges and opportunities for intervention. However, common elements that enhance resilience include good governance, gender equality and engagement with a broad range of social groups, conflict resolution, livelihood diversification, and access to infrastructure and public services.
- Financing resilience: A range of flexible funding mechanisms for support before, during and after hazards – insurance, borrowing, dedicated funds, remittances and multi-year aid – can be useful; their respective effectiveness varies by context.
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The state of the evidence
There is a large body of theoretical literature about how and why disaster resilience works, and some qualitative and quantitative case studies detail empirical findings. However, evidence of what creates disaster resilience, or its effects on humanitarian and development outcomes, remains limited in a number of ways.
- First, this evidence mainly takes the form of isolated qualitative case studies that are sector-, hazard- or context-specific.
- Second, there are few rigorous evaluations of development and humanitarian interventions that have aimed to build disaster resilience: many resilience-building programmes date back less than a decade.
- Third, the geographic scope of the available evidence is limited, with few studies from fragile or conflict-affected states and a concentration on a small number of regions and events: Asia-Pacific in relation to the 2004 tsunami, particular cyclones in South Asia, earthquakes in China, and droughts in the Horn of Africa and Sahel.
- Fourth, there is insufficient consideration of power and inequality issues (a point made in Oxfam International 2013, among others). For example, most references are gender-blind, providing no disaggregated data. In part, these limitations reflect the relative infancy of the concept of disaster resilience, and ongoing debates about how to define, measure or operationalise it.
- DFID (2011a). Defining Disaster Resilience: A DFID Approach Paper. DFID.
See document online
- Twigg, J. (2009). Characteristics of a Disaster-Resilient Community. A Guidance Note. NGO inter-agency group.
See document online
- The guide is based on a search of the literature in English, mostly from the past five years, that explicitly discusses resilience to natural hazards in low- and middle-income countries, with particular attention to humanitarian action. (As detailed elsewhere in this guide, many of the findings have relevance to contexts of violent conflict and state fragility.) Because this is a new and emerging area of limited research, a selection of materials that address the closely linked areas of DRM and DRR are included where relevant.
- This point was observed in the literature and highlighted by two of the external reviewers.