How can environmental sustainability thinking make disaster risk reduction better? (part 2 of 2)

In part two of this two-part series, Sustainability and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) expert Jonathan Essex explores different ways of thinking about disaster risk reduction.

Tuesday 09 February 2016, Private: Jonathan Essex

Following emergency relief in the aftermath of disasters, longer-term recovery often focuses primarily on the rebuilding of infrastructure, rather than doing this in ways that create environmentally and socially sustainable futures for affected communities.

If relief and recovery processes are to rebuild truly resilient communities, then those communities need restored livelihood opportunities as well as infrastructure (DFID, 2011).

To be environmentally sustainable, those processes need to create employment that rebuilds communities in ways that reduce rather than increase the environmental impact of relief and reconstruction works (as well as future production and consumption).

A more integrated approach to resilience like this could support the creation of new enterprises that reuse and repurpose local resources. Meanwhile, new enterprises that deliver local renewable energy sources, could also support a ‘build back better’ approach.

Decentralised community energy generation, as well as other local sustainability enterprises could provide opportunities to better transition from relief to sustainable recovery. This would create new local employment that, alongside improved local material and energy security, would increase community resilience to future disasters.

Investments in this type of job creation can, alongside infrastructure restoration, create a better built environment. Together, they can help shift communities from a more linear ‘make-break-throw away’ economy towards a more resilient ‘circular’ economy, where the local physical and natural environment, employment, and quality of life can be better-sustained through planning for them together.

Overall, this increased community resilience can lower risks of similar impacts from future disasters. At the same time, a more holistic approach to relief and recovery will reduce the embodied energy needed for reconstruction. It will also lower the risk of losing significant ’embodied energy’ in a future disaster, particularly that contained within the infrastructure and buildings themselves.

Rethinking reconstruction – and adapting for the long-term

An unfortunate truth is that climate change is increasing the frequency, severity and variability of natural disasters. This is increasing the burden to recover from disasters, especially in the most vulnerable countries.

This is just one reason why more holistic approaches to disaster recovery are needed, otherwise rebuilding costs will continue to increase and in some cases become uninsurable, and the human and environmental recovery costs unmanageable.

For greater community resilience, disaster recovery processes in many cases will not mean rebuilding bigger infrastructure or stronger buildings, but creating built environments that can better adapt to climate change and other disaster impacts by being more flexible, responsive, designed for safe failure, and with increased levels of redundancy (see figure 1 below visualising analytical resilience in infrastructure).


Ultimately, this must look beyond the physical (technical) aspects of individual aspects of infrastructure resilience but how these connect with each other, and to the wider policy and operational aspects.

For example, when the electricity grid fails will local renewable energy generation still be able to provide electricity to critical infrastructure, and avoid knock affects to drainage and water supply systems?

Figure 1 illustrates the different principles to such a systems approach, that views the entire system of interdependent elements of recovery, one that also looks ahead to future maintenance, institutional sustainability, and the mitigation of climate impacts.

Table 1 highlights how this could be viewed as moving from ‘building back better’ to ‘building back differently’.

Annual Report_BW15

An integrated approach will improve disaster preparedness

Put simply, an integrated approach that considers long-term planning for both climate change adaption and mitigation as integral to DRR will improve disaster preparedness. And it will better-ensure resilience and the ability of communities to bounce back from future disasters more quickly.

Disasters provide an opportunity to rethink how to get development right-first-time, not only to leave a better world for future generations, but to assist citizens who are most-vulnerable to the accelerating impacts of climate change today.

This approach must not just improve resilience to shocks and disaster today, but better plan for the longer term, opting for different ‘climate resilient’ development pathways that puts mitigation and adaptation to climate change and wider sustainability challenges at the core.

Such ‘building back differently’ can free up resources from reconstruction that further expands infrastructure and the wider built environment post-disaster to improving quality (upgrading the resilience) of existing environments.

Examples of this include upgrading informal urban housing areas, decentralised renewable energy generation and storage through micro-grids and ecosystem approaches that reduce the severity of downstream flood events.

This approach can also be designed to deliver an ecological ‘return-on-investment’ for the physical recovery efforts.

Taking such a wider view on what ‘build back better’ means can reduce the carbon emissions embodied in redevelopment, while also reducing rather than restoring pre-disaster levels of carbon emissions and resource use.

This means that restored communities can be the early-adopters of sustainable solutions, leapfrogging the approaches already embedded elsewhere.

This is an alternative to the view that it is best for low-income countries to develop first, support this development with aid programmes that are focused upon DRR and climate adaptation, and like others, leave climate mitigation to be addressed later in the development (and disaster risk management) cycle.

The major opportunity here, however, is in the difference that a more holistic approach to disaster recovery can make in terms of leadership and ownership of the recovery processes.

In this way building back differently can enable those most-affected to take the lead in not just implementing sustainable solutions to address climate change themselves, but in doing so highlight the approaches needed to transition to climate resilience worldwide—and in turn, reduce the future climate risks to these same communities.

Photo above available courtesy of the Asian Development Bank under a Creative Commons license.

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