How can communities be made more resilient to natural disasters? How can they build on existing assets to face future threats with more confidence and what can they do to learn from previous events? These and other similar questions were the focus of a recent European Horizon 2020 project that the Institute worked on as part of a consortium of 16 partner organisations across seven other countries in Europe.
The overall aim of this project was to design tools that could be used by local authorities to assess their existing strengths and weaknesses in the face of natural disasters, such as floods, earthquakes, or winter storms. This included an innovative ICT solution that allowed authorities to assess their resilience across five relevant dimensions and to develop strategies to address any gaps or weaknesses.
Natural and other types of disasters are becoming increasingly frequent and extreme as a result of climate change exacerbated by our globalised and interlinked economies. This not only raises important questions about what can be done to prevent or mitigate future similar crises, but also how citizens can be supported to be better prepared to deal with such emergencies in the future.
The concept of resilience is often used in the literature to capture the way societies are able to withstand and recover from the impacts of such disasters. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), for example, has defined resilience as the ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functioning.
Other definitions of resilience go further than this, including concepts of adaptation or even transformation so that resilience is not just about returning a society or community to its original state, but adapting or transforming it to make it less susceptible to future similar or different hazards.
We contributed to this exciting and relevant project by carrying out in-depth case studies of previous disasters, including the Grenfell Tower fire, in order to capture the lived experience of communities in disaster situations. Using a life-world analysis methodology we found that peoples experiences of disasters are often shaped by power relations and that the interaction between environment and human agency is crucial in shaping risk, preparedness, and resilience.
We also carried out representative surveys of citizens in the UK and in Italy to explore the relationship between risk perception, personal characteristics and citizens behaviour and response to flooding disasters. An online survey of 2000 citizens across the UK helped to show, for example, that people with previous experience of a disaster or who know someone with such experience are significantly more likely to take active steps to prepare for such an event in the future.
Furthermore, younger people, those from social grades C2DE and men are also on average less likely to take active steps to increase their resilience to disasters. Such findings have important implications for local authorities and what they can do to help prepare citizens for future threats highlighting the need to target particular types of residents and providing them with relevant information can help to keep them safe.