The COVID-19 crisis demonstrates the need to invest much more in pre-disaster risk reduction and preparedness for a range of risks, including climate change and its accompanying hazards such as flooding. But what, asks Swenja Surminski, does this kind of investment need to consider in practice – and why is ‘resilience’ not already widely taken into account when making policy and investment decisions?

Current public health and environmental crises are illuminating that the inherent systems we have in place around the world to deal with emergencies need to be re-evaluated. There is an urgent need to adjust financial flows towards increased investment into ways to reduce the risk from a hazard event before it has happened (known as ‘pre-event’ or ‘ex-ante’ disaster risk reduction). However, for policymakers or investors the old adage that ‘prevention is better than cure’ does not always hold water: preventative measures tend to be seen as a cost, with uncertain or distant rewards, and they lose out to more immediate action.

As a result, decision-makers still undervalue investment in pre-disaster resilience due to its political unattractiveness, even though evidence shows that strengthening resilience is hugely cost-effective and can generate multiple benefits. This has caused a major imbalance in disaster funding, with significantly more spent on recovery and repair than on risk reduction and increasing resilience.

Resilience as a concept is not new – but its meaning is often unclear

The idea of resilience has been promoted for a long time. In terms of global commitments, this has manifested through the UN’s Hyogo Framework and its successor, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Yet it is often unclear what the term means and how to capture it when making policy or investment decisions.

Different disciplines apply different concepts when assessing resilience – from ‘robustness’ to ‘bouncing back’ and ‘bouncing forward’ in the face of shocks. A commonly used definition is the one provided by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction: “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 functions”.  Importantly, resilience needs a holistic understanding of risks and risk drivers, taking into account how risks interact and what this means for aims and ambitions of individuals, companies or countries.

A multi-stranded strategy

Resilience can also have a transformational aspect when we consider future risks and how to reduce and prepare for these. The Grantham Research Institute is currently carrying out flood resilience work at the community level in cities in Germany and Eastern England, and works with partners across several developing countries to develop local resilience concepts in the face of rising risk levels. In that context, we consider resilience as a holistic strategy to help communities move ahead in a sustainable way – that is, by pursuing social, ecological and economic development goals while managing the risk of flooding over time in a way that mutually reinforces these goals.

As such, achieving resilience is not just a matter of selecting one strategy – for example, in the flooding context, building a dyke. True resilience can only be achieved through a strategy that employs financial, human, natural, physical and social capitals. This is particularly important in the context of climate change, where we know that today’s decisions will determine tomorrow’s risks. A lack of regard for future risk can lead to expensive lock-ins: where and how we build today’s infrastructure, housing or community structures will shape the lives of current and future generations. Once something is built it becomes costly to adjust, move or upgrade. Disregarding future risk means that desperately needed investments will only have short-lived benefits.

Therefore, climate resilience needs to be an essential component of current and future planning and decision-making to ensure that previous gains in poverty reduction and economic prosperity are not wiped out by adverse climatic impacts. However, as our recent analysis of risk governance shows, there is still a prevailing focus on post-event response and recovery strategies and a lack of recognition of the importance of investing in risk reduction strategies proactively.  

The ‘triple dividend’ of resilience investment

Our research with ODI and the World Bank, and work with IIASA and partners in the Flood Resilience Alliance, has demonstrated why ex-ante action is so important via a ‘triple dividend of resilience investment’ framework. These three dividends are:

  1. Avoiding loss and saving lives. This is the most common motivation and most basic rationale for disaster risk management. However, it is a metric that is hard to measure because of the uncertainty around predicting the timing and magnitude of a future event – this applies to both public health crises and natural disasters. In addition, the immediate benefits of other investments can appear more attractive, leading to the delayed benefits of disaster risk management not being prioritised by politicians or private investors. Therefore, it is important to strengthen the business case for disaster risk management by also focussing on the second and third dividends of resilience, described next.
  2. Boosting economic potential. This occurs because improving resilience reduces the background risk of disaster, lessening risk-adverse behaviour and the apprehension around making long-term investments, forward-looking planning and entrepreneurship. This economic potential is true at both the household level and more broadly, at the macro-economic level.
  3. Broader development co-benefits. Investment in disaster risk management yields other benefits in the form of improving ecosystems, transport structures and agricultural systems. For example, flood embankments can also support road networks, and safe sea-port shelters can double as a fishery logistics service centre. Nature-based solutions in particular offer many advantages, including the fact that healthy ecosystems can regenerate, they are self-sufficient and do not need external energy supplies, they help to maintain biodiversity, can bring tourism benefits, and do not lose their performance capacity over time. It is important to expand consideration of timelines when assessing natural capital solutions, as they will take more time to show a quantifiable effect.

Planning for interconnected, compounding and consecutive risks

This mindset of preparedness particularly applies to the recovery process from the COVID-19 pandemic: any short-term emergency measures and long-term stimulus spending must aim to create a greener and more resilient future. This can be a catalyst to ‘build back better’, incorporating both resilience and preventative thinking in post-event action strategies.

Furthermore, a holistic approach is important for avoiding silo thinking, which is dangerous in both public health and natural disaster resilience strategies. We are facing complex challenges and will only succeed if we understand how we can cope with interconnected and compounding risks. So far, research and management approaches on natural disaster resilience have primarily focussed on strengthening the resilience towards singular events. Yet, with the impacts of COVID-19 expected to last from several months to years, occurrence of compounding and consecutive disasters is more likely. This requires urgent action from researchers to develop and provide evidence and guidelines for policymakers on how to build multi-risk resilience while responding to the current COVID-19 crisis.

Importantly, this also needs to move beyond the traditional view of relying on ‘hard’ engineering and infrastructure solutions only. Human, social and indeed natural capital are hugely important for building resilience, but often overlooked when designing risk strategies, as our research has found.

A ‘building back better’ approach should guide any recovery effort, regardless of the context or discipline, as it can guide us onto a healthier and more sustainable path for future generations.

It is encouraging to see ‘resilience’ reaching the headlines again and being identified as a goal for recovery and stimulus by national governments and international financial organisations. Now it is essential to fill this with real meaning, and to protect lives and livelihoods, alongside promoting effective ex-ante (preventative) efforts to be undertaken by governments, businesses and communities. Our triple dividend of resilience mindset coupled with post-disaster adaptation support is a strong strategy to reduce our world’s ever-increasing vulnerability to the effects of extreme weather events and public health crises.

The views in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Grantham Research Institute.

Related research

Risk governance and resilience:

Generating multiple disaster resilience dividends:

Resilience in the context of Loss and Damage:

Keep in touch with the Grantham Research Institute at LSE
Sign up to our newsletters and get the latest analysis, research, commentary and details of upcoming events.