Natural disasters and community resilience: A framework for support

CFCA Paper No. 3 – May 2012

Introduction

It is increasingly acknowledged that when working to assist children and families it is essential to recognise the influence of the wider community. Community-level factors can work to protect children and families from adverse outcomes, but may also expose them to a number of risks (Edwards & Bromfield, 2009). The importance of community for the safety and wellbeing of children and young people in Australia is articulated in the first outcome for the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children: that "children live in safe and supportive families and communities" (Council of Australian Governments [COAG], 2009, p. 11). Therefore, it is important that service providers, practitioners and policy-makers in the child and family welfare field have an understanding of the factors that can either compromise or enhance the strength of communities.

Community resilience can be explored in a number of ways, including the strength of relationships across sectors and groups within the community, and the effects of government policy decisions. However, despite the obvious appeal of the idea of community resilience, it is a concept that is hard to define and can be difficult for practitioners and policy-makers to translate into concrete actions or policies. Especially in disadvantaged communities, where multiple and complex problems often exist and where the resources with which to affect change can be limited, the idea of promoting community resilience may seem abstract and divorced from the most pressing problems at hand.

This may be most evident in the ways in which communities respond to natural disasters, such as the 2009 Victorian bushfires and the 2011 Queensland floods. Australia, the land "of droughts and flooding rains", can severely test the capacity of communities to recover from the impact of natural disasters. In light of the growing awareness of the effects of climate change, and in the aftermath of a string of recent natural disasters, the concept of community resilience is increasingly used in both political and public discourse. Indeed, the Council of Australian Governments recently approved the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience (National Emergency Management Committee [NEMC], 2009) (see Box 1), which advocated a whole-of-society approach to disaster management, and emphasised the role that communities play in building national resilience.

Box 1: The National Strategy for Disaster Resilience

In December 2009, COAG agreed to adopt a whole-of-nation resilience-based approach to disaster management, which recognises that a national, coordinated and cooperative effort is needed to enhance Australia's capacity to prepare for, withstand and recover from disasters. The National Emergency Management Committee subsequently developed the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience, which was adopted by COAG on 13 February 2011. The purpose of the Strategy is to provide high-level guidance on disaster management to Federal, state, territory and local governments, business and community leaders and the not-for-profit sector. While the strategy focuses on priority areas to build disaster resilient communities across Australia, it also recognises that disaster resilience is a shared responsibility for individuals, households, businesses and communities, as well as for governments. The strategy is the first step in a long-term, evolving process to deliver sustained behavioural change and enduring partnerships.

The National Strategy for Disaster Resilience (PDF 203 KB) is available online <www.coag.gov.au/node/81>.

The purpose of this paper is to offer service providers, practitioners and policy-makers working in regional and rural communities a framework and practical tools for understanding community resilience, so they can identify and strengthen practices and policies which will best promote resilience in their community (see Box 2 for a definition of community as used in this paper). This paper pays particular attention to providing tools and advice that speak to the reality of the service environment in rural communities, where circumstances can be less than ideal (e.g., limited resources, relative isolation) and where problems must often be faced with flexibility and ingenuity

Box 2: Defining "community"

The word "community" can be defined in many ways. It can denote those who live in a specific region, those who share certain characteristics (e.g., cultural history, religious belief) and identify as being part of a community, and those who come together through shared interests or concerns (Maguire & Cartwright, 2008). Communities can be located within a bound physical space or geographically dispersed, as with "online" or "virtual" communities (Porter, 2004). The word community can even be used to describe a feeling of connection, reciprocity and positive interaction, as in the statement "a real sense of community has developed".

For the purposes of this paper, the term community refers to individuals and families who live in a similar geographic area. Furthermore, as this document focuses on challenges faced more frequently by those in regional and rural areas, "community" identifies towns or small cities, rather than major cities or large geographical areas such as whole states or territories.