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Hinman Pulse

June 19, 2012

The Role of Resilience in Effective Hazard Management

by Richard Little

The world can be a dangerous place. In the natural realm, earthquakes, extreme winds, floods, snow and ice, volcanic activity, landslides, tsunamis, and wildfires all pose some degree of risk. To this list of natural hazards, we can add human errors, terrorist acts, design faults, poor construction, and old and poorly maintained infrastructures. Climate change will likely amplify the effects of some of these hazards, particularly in low-lying coastal areas. All in all, any number of unpleasant and believable scenarios can be constructed for the future but it is far easier to describe what is likely to happen than it is to say how likely it is to occur.

One of the major challenges facing public and private enterprise globally will be the development of effective risk management strategies in the face of the high degree of uncertainty that exists regarding these hazards. Fortunately, the ability to determine precisely the likelihood of a specific event is not necessary to make informed and pragmatic decisions regarding risk management.  An appropriate strategy will often present itself when one examines the individual components of the risk equation.


Understanding Risk Is Critical

In simple mathematical terms, risk R can be expressed as the probability of an adverse event P, multiplied by the vulnerability V of the population or place where it will occur, and the consequences of that event C, or R = P x V x C.  For example, in the case of rising sea level, the risk is far greater for people living in coastal areas than for those at higher elevations because coastal populations are more vulnerable to lowland flooding and storm surge and will suffer greater consequences if those events should occur.

In essence, the assessment of risk can be captured in three questions.

  1. What can go wrong?
  2. What is the likelihood that it could go wrong?
  3. What are the consequences of failure?

If we think about pre-Katrina New Orleans, an answer to these three questions could be summarized thus

In the event of a stronger than usual but not uncommon intensity hurricane, it is highly likely that the levees will be breached or otherwise fail in a number of locations, resulting in the deaths of hundreds to thousands of mostly poor people as well as billions of dollars in damage.


Effective Risk Management Can Lead Directly to More Resilient Enterprise

Traditionally, the response to threats from various hazards has been to identify a “design basis event” often termed a maximum probable event or something else that connotes the worst that is likely to occur given what is known regarding a particular hazard or threat. Efforts are then made either to prevent the event from occurring (e.g., fire proofing, airport security) or designing systems (i.e., buildings, infrastructure, institutions) that are sufficiently robust to withstand its effects. Although it is compelling to believe that designing for some maximum probable event fully addresses the risk issue, history suggests otherwise when we consider the‘‘unsinkable’’ Titanic or the ‘‘impregnable’’ Maginot Line. Their designers assumed what was believed to be a rational threat scenario, then planned and designed for it, yet in the end, they did not know what they did not know about the threat.

In the face of such uncertainty, the concept of resilience, the ability to absorb unanticipated shocks has emerged as a guiding principle of disaster risk management.

Resilience is a characteristic that gives enterprise buoyancy in the face of any disruption, increasing its day-to-day flexibility to respond to a world that is changing fast and becoming ever less certain (Sheffi, Y. 2005. The Resilient Enterprise. Cambridge, MA. The MIT Press).

Because of the great uncertainty of predicting the magnitude of specific events at specific locations, it is within the context of resilience that options for addressing the risk of multiple hazards can best be considered. Returning to the risk equation, it can be seen that reducing the risk from natural and man-made hazards embodies four sequential actions: avoid the hazard if possible, communicate its onset, withstand its effects, recover from its impacts.

Avoid the Hazard

At this time, natural hazards cannot be prevented. The only practical way to avoid them is not to be there when one occurs. In the case of coastal areas, for example, living outside the possible inundation zone associated with rising sea level or storm surge is perhaps the wisest choice, though certainly not a short-term option for the many people already living in flood-prone areas or for those who depend on the sea for their livelihood. However, as we saw in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, the outcome would have been far different if the Fukushima Daiichi reactors had been located further from the coast.

Communicate the Hazard’s Onset

Although seismically active areas and areas vulnerable to tsunamis can be identified fairly readily, earthquakes themselves have defied prediction. Furthermore, it cannot be predicted with accuracy whether a tsunami will be generated by a particular earthquake. However, once a tsunami has been set in motion, both the timing and location of its landfall can be predicted with sufficient accuracy to serve as the basis for raising an alarm and initiating evacuation procedures. Large storm events, such as typhoons and tropical cyclones, can be tracked almost from their creation and the timing and location of landfall and the estimated impacts based on wind speed and tidal surge estimated fairly well. If people are aware of a risk ex ante, and receive a credible and trusted warning in sufficient time to evacuate to a place of safety, many lives can be saved.

Withstand the Hazard’s Effects

Despite awareness of a hazard, it may prove too costly to relocate existing development and infrastructure to safer ground. In these cases, flood-protection works such as levees and floodwalls can be employed, structures can be elevated, and infrastructure systems made more robust. Designing and building for known hazards is an area for which the engineering community is well-prepared. Even if the height of the tsunami that inundated the Fukushima Daiichi plant could not be predicted, the emergency generators should have located at a higher elevation.

Recover from the Hazard

Despite our best efforts to identify, avoid, and prepare for hazardous events, they occur nevertheless; usually presenting some heretofore unanticipated aspects. How enterprises respond to and recover from these events will depend, in large measure, on the degree to which they have invested (mentally, physically, and fiscally) in the basic building blocks of resilience. Creating the institutional capability to organize and manage a response to a hazard event should be the goal of public and private enterprise and ensuring that well-trained, capable people are available should be a top priority.


Toward More Resilient Enterprises

The foregoing discussion attempts to build a foundation for a set of practices to enhance the resilience of enterprise at all levels. These practices work through a logical sequence of identifying, communicating, preparing for, responding to, and recovering from hazard events. While relatively straightforward from a conceptual standpoint, a major challenge to the actual deployment and implementation of these practices will be the different cultural, economic, and political characteristics of the organizations in which they must operate. One size will fit neither all hazards nor all enterprises.



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