Building resilience in the wake of a disaster

By Mike McRaeMarch 31st, 2020

We Aussies like to think we’re resilient, but knowing what that looks like at a time of unprecedented challenge takes more than national pride – it takes good science.

Ravaged by the fires of Black Summer, Australia looks uncertainly to a future of worsening flames, flood, and drought. Mitigating the effects of climate change is essential if we’re to avoid the worst, but as a new decade rolls in it is clear that weather we now consider extreme will increasingly become common place.

Natural hazards are only regarded as disastrous when the things we value are compromised. As climate change makes an encounter with life-disrupting events more of a certainty, we need to ask not how we’ll prevent catastrophe, but how to bounce back when the inevitable strikes.

We need to work out what a disaster-resilient world looks like, and how to get there.

Are we prepared for what’s to come?

Late January, Prime Minister Scott Morrison raised the need for greater accountability in risk management, resilience, and preparedness in the face of severe to catastrophic disasters due to natural hazards. A royal commission has since been set up to explore how “preparedness for, response to, resilience to, and recovery from” disasters could be improved, and what actions can be taken to improve resilience, adapt to changing climates, and mitigate impacts.

It’s a challenge which the CSIRO is well placed to support as part of a national collaborative approach, noting our long history of research on land management, building design, managing biodiversity bushfire behaviour, and in the science and practical application of the concepts of resilience and adaptation.

Knowing how to mitigate risks through improved technologies, reducing emissions and being prepared can go far, but survival requires more than being protected. There remains a need to find ways to rebuild our lives and return to a new semblance of normality.

Determining just what such ‘normality’ might look like for each of us isn’t as straight forward as we might imagine. It requires just as much investigation as our best bushfire theories and climate models.

Plants resprouting from a tree trunk after fire

Plants resprout following a bushfire (Image: Dan Metcalfe, CSIRO)

As one of the strategic partners for the Australian Government’s National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework, the CSIRO has helped develop an understanding of what makes us all vulnerable to disaster, how we can make a difference before disaster occurs, and continue to take opportunities while recovering.

CSIRO sustainability economist Russ Wise says we will always need well-resourced and co-ordinated response and recovery. However, this important role would become increasingly unsustainable under worsening climate conditions. There is a need to reduce the direct and indirect causes of disaster risks. This can be informed by a better understanding of the things we value and the leverage points in the system we can influence, he says.

A key part of the solution, according to Wise, is to pre-emptively focus efforts on collaboratively working with communities, industries and all levels of government to better understand and mitigate the causes and effects of our exposure and vulnerability. And we must pre-emptively build the necessary resilience to prepare, respond, cope, manage and recover from stresses and shocks.

“Essentially, the purpose of these ‘vulnerability/resilience-focused’ efforts of CSIRO and partners is therefore to increase the emphasis on the efforts to reduce the risks being created, as opposed to responding to them at the end of the line,” says Wise.

What do we mean by resilience?

Resilience is a common cliché in politics, reflecting virtues of strength, perseverance, and determination before adversity. Researchers have found that to understand what it looks like in practice, we must understand the root causes of what makes us vulnerable in the first place.

That can be easier said than done. Things we value in our homes, communities, institutions and nature – be it a well-stocked local market, lush surroundings, or historical treasures – can differ between people, and also rapidly shift during disaster. They rely on broader networks and infrastructure, which in turn involve a variety of stakeholders.

What’s more, our way of life is often deeply embedded in providing stability and prosperity, ideals which can vary from person to person and between diverse sets of stakeholders encompassing communities, business and governments. Establishing an approach to resilience that doesn’t prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution relies on providing evidence through effective communication with the right people.

Brisbane floods in 2011 (Image: Tatters via Flickr)

Brisbane floods (Image: Tatters via Flickr)

Bringing people together

“One of the main things that we try and do is bring people together from relevant organisations [and] set up a process to help build a shared perspective on all of these routines and practices that are creating our vulnerabilities to disruption,” says Wise.

These processes, known as ‘Deconstructing Disaster’ workshops, are designed with sound educational principles in mind, creating safe and enabling environments for people to consider what they could stand to lose in a plausible severe to catastrophic disaster scenario. It’s not a comfortable thought for many of us but developing layers of resilience requires just this kind of storytelling and reflection.

For the most part, coming up with ways to guide different sectors into managing their own resilience means developing new methods from scratch. Like climate change itself, we’re heading into uncharted waters.

“We’ve actually developed a whole set of new tools and concepts and frameworks that we apply in integrated ways with other scientists,” says Wise.

From bustling coastal cities to farming stations on rust coloured plains, our nation celebrates a rich variety of communities and cultures. Diversity defines us, but also means we don’t all share the same risks and consequences of climate change. Exactly what those consequences might be is a question we desperately need to answer if we’re to thrive as a nation.

“There is increasing recognition of the need to act together in a coordinated way across all levels of government, the private sector, and civil society,” says Wise. “We are already seeing many sectors increase investments in climate resilient measures and efforts to support the implementation of the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework, including development of a national action plan and more.”


  1. The underpinning of resilience is optimism. Are you working on optimism?

    1. Yes. Doom and gloom scenarios on their own are not very helpful. In our work we actively set out to develop both *hope* and *agency*, even while dealing with the possibility of the need for deep societal transformation.

  2. Good point Victor. It is my hope that if you work for CSIRO or involved in scientific innovations/endeavours that you are naturally optimistic!

  3. There is something more than resilience….it has been termed “antifragility” (Nassim Taleb, 2015).
    If you are antifragile you actually benefit from disruption and volatility rather than simply survive it or resist it.
    Interestingly, people with what mainstream may consider fragility, can actually be antifragile….they have already dealt with and learned to cope with fragility….and therefore have skills to be more than robust in a crisis. Examples would be ex political prisoners, CEO’s like Alan Joyce (post the custard pie incident), the street wise rather than the academic and entrepreneurs who have already gone bust several times.
    Prince William said today that the British are at their best at times of crisis. The ability to adapt, grow and win is at the heart of survival.

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