Natural disasters and community resilience: A framework for support

CFCA Paper No. 3 – May 2012

The concept of community resilience

In the last decade, resilience has evolved from a specialist term used largely in materials science and environmental studies to become a concept employed frequently and passionately by policy-makers, practitioners and academics in various disciplines. The concept has become embedded in laws, government, doctrines, and plans, and universities across the world have established resilience centres, institutes, and research programs.

It is an appealing concept, as it denotes the capacity of something or someone to cope when confronted by hardship - to bounce back, recover and return to normal after grappling with an unusual, distressing and often unanticipated (or unexpectedly severe) threat (Bonnano, 2005; Cutter et al., 2008; Maguire & Cartwright, 2008; McAslan, 2010, 2011; Tanner, Mitchell, Polack, & Guenther, 2009). The term encompasses fundamental elements in the daily struggle for life and survival - including notions of awareness, detection, communication, reaction and recovery - and suggests an inherent ability to adapt over time to an environment that changes and is often threatening (Maguire & Cartwright, 2008; McAslan, 2010, 2011).

Resilience entered the English language in the early 17th Century from the Latin verb resilire, meaning to rebound or recoil (Concise Oxford Dictionary, Tenth Edition). Since then, the term resilience has been employed to describe a feature of metals, people, living creatures, ecosystems, families, communities, organisations, and nation states. The concept has been so widely applied that it has frequently proven difficult to define, and critics have argued that the term is obscure and ambiguous (Folke, 2006; Hunter, 2012; McAslan, 2010, 2011; Tanner et al., 2009).

It would seem, however, that differences in the term's definition are not as extensive as some literature may suggest, and the concept, regardless of its application, possesses a number of essential characteristics. The National Strategy for Disaster Resilience (NEMC, 2009) includes the following four, core features in its description of a resilient community:

  • functioning well while under stress;
  • successful adaptation;
  • self reliance; and
  • social capacity.

Therefore, a resilient community is one whose members are connected to one another and work together in ways that enable it to function in the face of stress and trauma. A resilient community has the ability to adapt to changes in the physical, social or economic environment, and the potential to learn from experience and improve over time. A resilient community can also be self-sufficient, at least for a time, if external assistance is limited or delayed. As Maguire and Cartwright aptly summarised: the essence of community resilience is the ability to "utilise community resources to transform and respond to change in an adaptive way" (2008, p. 8).

The resilience perspective is empowering as it embraces the dynamic nature of communities and envisages many potentialities within them (Maguire & Cartwright, 2008). It is a flexible model that provides a means of understanding how a community's positive response to change can be encouraged and reinforced, as it shifts attention to capacity in the context of change rather than focusing solely, and unproductively, on a community's vulnerabilities (Kelly, 2004).