Options Magazine, Winter 2022: How would your community cope if floods or wildfires raced through it? With a 1.5°C rise in global temperature drawing nearer, such crises become more likely, but it is hard to gauge how prepared communities are. Does everyone have savings in place? Could schools remain open? Do people know the flood drill?

The ability to recoup after disaster depends on multiple factors, from the size of a community’s sandbag store to the warmth of its neighbourly relations. It is tricky to measure, and hard to compare different communities. Yet measurement is vital to identify strengths and weaknesses and chart progress. The task is ripe for systems analysis, and IIASA scientists have ingenious approaches.

One critical factor is whether governments can finance disaster recovery. Do they have reserve funds, insurance, or access to credit? Can they divert money from elsewhere? It depends, of course, on the amount of damage, but until now analysts have considered “average disasters” instead of breaking them down into crises large and small.

For a more nuanced look, IIASA researcher Stefan Hochrainer-Stigler led a group that considered risk “thresholds” across 200 governments. They assessed the cost of the potential damage for a range of flood sizes, from those that occur every few years to more biblical, once-in-a-millennium devastation.

They also assessed the means available to pay for that damage. For a country such as Afghanistan, the cost might be less than that of a European country because of its geography and less expensive infrastructure. But Afghanistan’s sources of finance are likely limited to loans and humanitarian assistance. As a result, it would struggle to recover from any flood greater than those that strike every 50 years. In comparison, Albania faces less flood risk because of its geography and, although it has more expensive infrastructure, it has wider financial options. Albania, therefore, should withstand even athousand-year flood.

Later this century, things will however change for the worse as both flood risks and exposure intensify. Afghanistan will be struggling to finance recovery from even a two-yearly flood — Albania will struggle every 13 years, on average.

Using the so-called CATSIM Framework, these results can help governments embed this information into policy. They could also be used to set up financial schemes that would pool flood risk globally, with countries contributing according to their wealth or their carbon emissions.

There is much more to resilience than government finance, of course. IIASA scientists working with the Zürich Flood Resilience Alliance, a partnership of researchers, NGOs and the private sector, including the Zurich Insurance Foundation, identified as many as 44 contributing factors — from early warning systems to inhabitants’ educational levels and the state of nearby natural habitats.

They incorporated these factors into estimates of flood resilience, which allows strengths and gaps in more than 300 communities across 30 countries to be identified.

“It is a global unique big data set on community resilience, and it’s systems science, it’s bringing various facets of resilience together,” says Hochrainer-Stigler, who worked with IIASA researcher Reinhard Mechler on the project. Mechler adds that as it was co-generated with NGO partners and communities, it includes a lot of local detail. Crucially, it combines quantitative data (such as household income and access to safety nets) with qualitative data (levels of trust, perceptions of safety) into estimates of resilience.

But climate change has more tricks to play than flooding. Drought, wildfire, and pandemics are just some of the problems accompanying the 1.5°C rise in temperature. How do we measure resilience to so many crises? IIASA researcher Brian Fath wants to create a general measure of how well a community might respond to any type of disaster.

Ecologists talk of the “adaptive cycle” of a system: development, growth, collapse, and reinvention. Those communities that survive are good at discarding old, unworkable habits, and finding new ones. A few years ago, Fath and colleagues proposed that this ability might underpin human social resilience too.

To measure it in human socioeconomic systems, Fath turned to FASresearch, a Vienna-based consultancy that has amassed a trove of data about the linkages within Austrian society, creating a map of connections between government bodies, NGOs, universities, arts organisations, corporations, and others.

Perhaps a community’s ability to reinvent itself after collapse can be measured by the strength of such interconnections, thinks Fath.

He worked with the company’s Harald Katzmair, and others, interviewing sample groups from this network to assess how strong interconnections really were, and the degree to which people could influence each other. They also asked them how resilient they felt their sectors were to disasters. The result is a tool for assessing the country’s sectoral and geographical resilience – a basis, they say, for strengthening it.

Intriguingly the study, conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, revealed that, of seven possible crises Austria might face, the stakeholders felt most prepared for — and also least likely to encounter — a pandemic. Fath and colleagues derive two lessons from this. First, people underestimate the way in which one crisis can beget another (in this case a pandemic initiating an economic crisis). Second, they overestimate the limits to their power when the disaster is global.

To improve resilience to the coming climate crises, it can be hard to know where to act. But the more we can understand, define, and measure resilience, the better we can prepare ourselves for what is to come.

by Aisling Irwin

In pursuit of resilience at 1.5degC © Blankstock | Dreamstime