How to build resilience in the face of compounding extreme events

By Ruth DawkinsApril 19th, 2022

The risk of more frequent and extreme natural hazards is rising with climate change. When these extreme events 'collide', their impacts compound—making communities more vulnerable to crises. How can we prevent potential systemic failures caused by extreme events?

Imagine for a moment that your community has suffered a lengthy drought. Several years without adequate rainfall have left farmers alarmingly close to running out of water and stockfeed – resources that are essential for the local economy.

Now imagine that your community, already under pressure from the drought, experiences a catastrophic bushfire. One that covers much of the region and goes on for weeks. Your power is knocked out, your comms towers are down, and major access roads are cut off. Food and fuel supplies run low. People and supplies cannot easily come in or go out of the region. It’s a disaster.

Even that isn’t the end of the story though.

The fire is followed by two years of flooding rains. The first big rains after the fires cascade down on the parched earth. After the drought and fire, it is welcome – but there’s so much water and debris from burned landscapes that it overwhelms the dams. Water treatment plants fail. The Australian Defence Force is brought in to truck water to the towns for drinking. And the seeds that have been washed across the land – often from the feed that was brought in during the drought – cause an explosion of weeds, causing yet more problems for managing the recovering landscape.

When the bushfire is out, the waters have receded, and the damage is added up, it’s revealed that 400,00 hectares of bush (60 per cent) of your shire was burned, and more than 600 dwellings and 1000 other structures damaged or destroyed. Clearly you need to bring in a workforce to start rebuilding and help the community get back on its feet.

But you can’t. There a global pandemic, and the country is in lockdown. Even if you could get labour in – where would the workers stay? There is an accommodation crisis for long-time residents, let alone bringing in a labour force.

This scenario sounds like something from a dystopian novel. But for residents of the Bega Valley in New South Wales, it has been their reality. Drought, bushfire, flood and a pandemic – all in the last five years.

Flooded Jellat flats, Bega Valley. Residents of the Bega Valley in New South Wales have experienced drought, bushfire, flood and a pandemic – all in the last five years. Credit: Bega Valley Shire Council.

“The rules and governance for this kind of situation have simply not been written,” says Dr Deborah O’Connell, a CSIRO research scientist who specialises in systems leadership. “But they need to be. We need a fundamental examination of our values, and we need to consider the way they might shift given the nature, magnitude, and intensity of challenges that are coming our way.”

Compound risk: a quick explainer

Australia’s climate is changing, and as it does, we are being exposed to the risk of more frequent and extreme natural hazards.

As the frequency of major events like bushfires, droughts and floods increases, so too does the likelihood of multiple events coinciding. This leads to the impacts of those events compounding on each other, as they did in the Bega Valley.

The consequences of these impacts cascade through our communities, effecting our highly interconnected economic activities, technological services and natural environments – the systems we rely on.

This effect – known as compound risk – puts our communities, environment, infrastructure, systems and services under enormous pressure. It’s almost impossible to respond to and recover from a new crisis if you’re still dealing with the impacts of the last one.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made us all aware of compound risk, and the role of climate as risk multiplier,” says Dr O’Connell. “We have seen how it has become a factor in everything. Whether that’s supply chains, work, health, family – the circumstances of the pandemic and climate change become an amplifier in every problem or vulnerability that already existed.”

“That’s how climate change works,” Dr O’Connell continues. “It will become a factor in every other decision you make, and no-one will be immune to the effects. It will affect the poor and the vulnerable of course, because they have less resources to move or cope. But it will affect all of us in every way and being wealthy won’t offer much immunity. You might have more comfort because of your resources, but you’ll still be impacted.”

Doubling down: building resilience to compound risk

When events such as flood, drought and bushfire strike, the environmental, human, and economic impacts are significant. When consecutive or concurrent events occur, those impacts are amplified and recovery becomes even more challenging.

Acute, occasional disruptors like cyclones and floods will amplify and expose cumulative and chronic stressors that have been ongoing but unnoticed in a community for much longer. These can be related to long term trends in increased health challenges (obesity, diabetes), affordable housing, land degradation, demographics (ageing populations), economics (rising inequality) or a range of other issues.

The impacts of compound risk put our communities, environment, infrastructure, and governance under greater stress and makes us more vulnerable to potential crises.

The key to managing the impacts of compound risk is building greater resilience in our communities, critical services, governance, and infrastructure. This will improve the ability of Australian communities to reduce their vulnerability and risk and hasten the recovery from natural-hazard induced disasters.

Planning and building resilience to disasters makes it faster and easier to restore essential services after a major event, and it also has a much wider positive impact on job security, health and wellbeing within communities, and the protection of ecosystems and cultural heritage.

Individual resilience is important, but in the face of such immense challenges, it’s nowhere near enough. The complex and fast-evolving interplay of natural events means that a strategic and coordinated approach will be most effective to strengthen resilience in Australia’s communities.

The work needs to be led by those with resources and agency – including all levels of government, as well as investors, industries and communities – with the support of a national framework to guide their efforts. That framework should be underpinned by evidence-based research, traditional knowledge, and a clear articulation of our shared values and priorities – taking into account that the values we prioritise during normal times create systems that may not serve the values that matter during catastrophe.

A new disaster resilience framework for managing compound risk

The standard approach to building resilience has been a cycle with four discrete phases: prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.

This worked well for periodic and local hazardous events, but the increasing frequency, magnitude and spatial extent of hazards, along with the high levels of exposure and vulnerability (i.e., high levels of compound risk) means the system is no longer fit for purpose.

By bringing together those with the resources and agency; our leaders in government, business and community, we can strengthen our national resilience.

“Until recently, our state emergency services were in a good position to deal well with occasional, acute disruptors like bushfire”, says Dr O’Connell. “But the cumulative and cascading effect of multiple events at larger scales – at the same time or in close succession – is much harder to deal with and the capacity of communities and responders to cope and recover is lessened. To help that, we need to manage the chronic underlying stressors that exist too.”

For this to happen, a major step change needs to take place. Decision makers need competencies and capabilities – data, methodologies, tools, and governance, for example – to help address their knowledge gaps and provide a better understanding of questions like:

  • What are the things we value that may be at risk?
  • How do our priorities change when those things of value are threatened?
  • What does a successfully adapted and disaster resilient future look like?
  • What are the transition pathways that can help us reach that future?
  • What investment is required?

One approach that facilitates discussion of these questions and helps people work together to develop answers – currently being used in the Bega Valley – is the Enabling Resilient Investment (ERI) approach.

The Enabling Resilient Investment (ERI) approach

Led by Dr O’Connell and Dr Russell Wise, CSIRO’s Principal Sustainability Economist as well as John Marinopoulos and Nic Mesic, Value Advisory Partners, the ERI approach helps users to generate and explore future options and pathways that are adaptive to change and resilient to disaster.

“It’s an approach that can be applied across different regions and it helps people and organisations look beyond what one organisation can do,” says Dr O’Connell. “We know that change requires collaboration and coordination across multiple stakeholders, who will often be coming with very different experiences and perspectives. The first step is to convene these groups within a safe and inclusive environment of open inquiry, listening and active co-learning.”

The focus then becomes finding shared values – and sometimes this is less a question of what people want to protect, and more about developing a positive vision of what they want from the future.

“Most humans actually want similar things,” says Dr O’Connell. “A healthy environment, connected communities, functioning economies… the difficult discussions are usually less about what people want in the long term, and more about what they think is the best way of getting there. When a group has reached a consensus about what sorts of futures they want, we help them explore different pathways to get there. We look for potential interventions and options for change – policies, infrastructure, supply chains – and we provide evidence that supports their decision making along the way.”

It sounds like a simple process, but the ERI approach, and supporting Framework, are based on 20 years of national and international work on climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction, resilience, and value creation in developed and developing countries. One of its key points of difference with other approaches is providing a safe space for people to express emotion, doubt and vulnerability, as the basis for building shared understanding trust, and willingness to discuss difficult topics and build collaboration.

“It’s okay to put uncertainty on the table,” says Dr O’Connell. “No-one is showing up on day one with all the answers; instead, we’re able to lead people through a process of discovery.”

Once there are possible transition pathways, the framework then allows participants to build different evidence-based investment cases that will create value and reduce climate and disaster risk before – hopefully – preparing for funding and financing.

What might a resilient community look like?

A key challenge for many of us is that it’s hard to think outside the box and imagine what a resilient community might actually look like. That’s what ABC’s Mt Resilience experience has been designed to help overcome – and it is proving to be a useful tool for participants in the ERI process.

Developed by ABC in partnership with Phoria, CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, Mt Resilience is an augmented reality experience that depicts life in a hypothetical town in regional Australia – a town that is thriving even in the face of a changing climate.

“Mt Resilience presents scenarios that are realistic and attainable, and that show what we can do if a community is well adapted,” says Dr O’Connell.

Mt Resilience is used as part of workshops and seminars – including as part of the ERI process – to help people think in a more aspirational way about what the future might look like, prompting discussion and debate, and providing a chance to explore new possibilities. The tool can run events like storms and bushfires to demonstrate how adaptation measures have helped the community reduce their risk and make changes that will benefit communities in good times and cope during extreme events.

CSIRO has developed a supplementary product called ‘Getting to Mt Resilience’ to help show councils, investors and planners how to use the ERI process in their everyday routines or decision processes to identify and design new options and pathways to resilient futures, as well as build their investment cases.

“It’s an accessible tool to help or guide people through the ERI steps or activities involved in developing visions and plausible pathways towards these visions; in ways that are engaging and exciting rather than tedious, overwhelming or gloomy,” says Dr O’Connell.

The tool showcases some of the technological solutions that are required for recovery, adaptation, and resilience, most of which already exist. But Dr O’Connell is keen to emphasise that technology is not in itself the silver bullet solution.

“When we are faced with the challenge of compound risk, technologies are necessary, but not enough,” says Dr O’Connell.

“Technological solutions can’t function without social and institutional supports, along with changes in behaviour and decision making. Technology only works when it can be deployed at scale in a way that suits a community’s needs – and we find out what that is by going through the ERI process first.”

Dr Alice Howe, Director Community, Environment and Planning at Bega Valley Shire Council, acknowledges that recovering from a natural disaster is a long journey for anyone.

“In our case, everyone in our community was touched in some way by the Black Summer bushfires,” Dr Howe says. “We want a future where that scale of catastrophe is avoided and we are able to focus on enhancing the fabulous environment in which we live.

“Walking alongside the ERI project team means the decisions we take are inclusive, evidence-based and contributing to our vision for a sustainable future.”

1 comments

  1. Thanks Ruth
    Definitely an important read folks, so take the time. What stands out is the concept of building a positive, participatory community with a science based foundation, with a unified collective aimed at same goals.
    No losers only winners.

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