Challenges in Sustainability | 2013 | Volume 1 | Issue 2 | Pages 72–79
Building Disaster Resilience: Steps Toward Sustainability
Susan L. Cutter
Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute, Department of Geography, University of South Carolina, Columbia,
SC 29208, USA; E-Mail: [email protected]; Tel.: +1 8037771590; Fax: +1 8037774972
Submitted: 2 September 2013| In revised form: 5 December 2013| Accepted: 18 December 2013 |
Published: 29 January 2014
Abstract: Disaster losses continue to escalate globally and in many regions human losses
(death, injury, permanent displacement) often exceed the economic toll. Current disaster policies
are reactive with a short-term focus―respond and rebuild as quickly as possible and in the same
way after the event. Such policies ignore the longer-term approach of building disaster-resilient
communities, in which investments made now show financial and social returns later by reducing
the impact of disasters. This article provides a vision for resilient nations in 2030 based on three
recent policy reports. It highlights the necessary steps towards achieving sustainability using the
lens of disaster resilience as the pathway towards strengthening communities' ability to prepare
and plan for, absorb, respond to, and recover from present and future disasters.
Keywords: disaster resilience; Hyogo Framework for Action; risk management; sustainable
Some hazards, such as hurricanes, tornados, wildfires,
and avalanches occur during specific time periods of
the year, while others, like earthquakes do not. Some
hazards are place-specific―the tectonically active
Pacific Rim, coastal environments—while others,
especially severe storms, are ubiquitous and found
almost everywhere. Human-made hazards can occur
anywhere, as can health-related hazards such as pan-
demics. The result: no single person or place is totally
immune from hazards or their adverse impacts. As
more and more people move to hazardous envi-
ronments such as coasts and floodplains, the potential
for increasing disaster risk intensifies as more people
and infrastructure are placed in harm's way. In the
United States, migration to the coasts, along with an
increasing and aging population and public infra-
structure that is equally old and beyond its design
limit, set the stage for greater impacts from hazards.
This scene is replicated in many other places such as
Japan, and EU countries. In other world regions rapid
urbanization and growth of mega-cities where more
than half of the world's population now lives and where
local wealth is most concentrated are amplifying
disaster risk as well.
We need not look further back than the last couple
of years to see the escalating losses associated with
disasters. The year 2012 is considered a moderate year
for losses, with global economic losses totaling US$170
© 2014 by the authors; licensee Librello, Switzerland. This open access article was published
under a Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/).
billion, slightly above the ten-year average, although
fatalities were lower than normal . Globally, there is
a worrisome trend in increasing weather-related
losses, a trend that is clear even when the raw data
are normalized by inflation and GDP . When using
other normalization proxies (such as inflation, GNI per
capita, insurance penetration, or building stock devel-
opment) the increase remains, averaging $750 million
per year in annual losses . In the U.S., the number
of individual events producing economic losses ex-
ceeding a billion dollars has increased. In 2010, for
example, there were 4 billion dollar events; in 2011
there were 14; and in 2012, there were 11 . Trends
in human losses (people killed, injured, displaced, or
affected) during the last decade fluctuate and illus-
trate the effect of a single catastrophic event—2004
Indian Ocean tsunami, 2008's Cyclone Nargis, and the
2010 Haiti earthquake. Without these large events,
there is an apparent decreasing trend in disaster fa-
talities, with 2012 recording one of the lowest numbers
of fatalities from disasters in more than a decade .
Disaster losses are occurring at a time of slower
economic growth (regionally and globally), reductions
in coastal and riverine defenses that protect com-
munities from flooding and storm surge, and the
increasing impacts of climate change from local to
regional to global levels. The impacts of disasters are
greatest in already impoverished communities, regions,
or countries and such impacts will increase in the
future. Communities and the nations that contain
them cannot continue to shoulder the financial or
social burdens of these losses each year—they are not
sustainable in either the short or longer term .
Communities and nations face difficult choices (fiscal,
social, environmental) about their existing vulner-
abilities, present and future security, and quality-of-life.
This paper summarizes the actions needed to
enhance disaster resilience based on recent reports by
the United Nations , the UK Government Office for
Science , and the U.S. National Research Council
. It argues that disaster resilience is the pathway
for linking disaster risk management and the long-
term sustainability of communities, through a series of
action-oriented steps that involve combinations of
top-down (internationally and nationally-driven) and
bottom-up (community-based) strategies. The idea is
certainly not new within the academic literature [10,
11], with some researchers re-conceptualizing re-
silience as "bouncing forward not bouncing back" to
some previous condition . However, within the
policy realm linking disaster risk, resilience, and
sustainability, this notion is relatively new and represents
a shift in thinking regarding disaster risk management.
2. Linking Disaster Risk Management and
Linking disaster risk management and sustainable
development begins with understanding the com-
monalities in each construct and their geographic and
temporal manifestations. Disaster risk management is
the "process that weighs policies, plans, and actions
for reducing the impact of disasters on people,
property, and the environment" (, p. 28). It
includes the identification of hazards and exposures,
assessments of the risk in terms of potential losses, the
development of capacities and implementation of
strategies to prevent, reduce, mitigate, recover, or pre-
pare for disasters, and evaluation of the effectiveness
of these policies and programs.
Sustainability is the potential to maintain the long
term well-being of communities based on social,
economic, and environmental requirements of present
and future generations. It stresses the inter-
dependencies of environmental protection, human
needs, and societal well-being [13,14], acknowledging
the primary goal of improving the human condition
without harming the environment. In the context of
hazards and disasters, "sustainability means that a
locality can tolerate—and overcome—damage, di-
minished productivity, and reduced quality of life from
an extreme event without significant outside
assistance" (, p. 4). How and where development
should proceed in communities if they are to become
sustainable begins with a set of principles that foster
sustainable mitigation. These principles maintain and
enhance environmental quality and quality of life, foster
local resilience, recognize that vibrant communities are
essential, ensure intra- and intergenerational equity,
and adopt local consensus building.
Fundamentally, resilience is a capacity measure
that can be viewed as sector-focused, systems-based,
or, applied more broadly to a community, defined as
systems of systems where the various components—
environment, infrastructure, social, economic, insti-
tutional and so forth—are integrated and mutually
supportive. There is rich and growing body of literature
on resilience, ranging from definitional clarifications to
conceptual frameworks to applications of the resilience
concept in specific environments such as cities or to
topical areas such as climate change or sustainability
[16-23]. Despite such robust research there is no
universal agreement on the specific definition of
disaster resilience, yet there is some consensus on its
broad parameters, specifically the capacity to recover
from or improve functions after a hazard event. For
example, an US NRC report defined resilience as "the
ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from,
or more successfully adapt to actual or potential
adverse eve-nts" (, p. 1). This is similar to the UK
Foresight report that defines resilience as "the ability of
a system and its component parts to anticipate, absorb,
accommodate, or recover from the effects of a
hazardous event in a timely and efficient manner, in-
cluding through ensuring the preservation, restoration,
or improvement of its essential basic structures and
functions" (, p. 17).
What links disaster risk management to sustainability
is resilience (Figure 1). The present focus on the
disaster cycle especially response and recovery must
be targeted more broadly on strategies to manage
disaster risk in both the long and short terms [24,25].
There are many different paths for achieving long-
term viability and self-sufficiency of communities from
a hazards and disaster perspective. Such pathways are
designed to enhance resilience by instituting a culture
of resilience through managing residual disaster risk,
reducing vulnerability, having strong leadership from
government and civil society, implementing institutional
reform of policies and practices at all levels, building
local capacity including peer-to-peer learning, de-
veloping and deploying tools and metrics for monitoring
progress, and reducing gaps in our scientific infor-
mation, data, and observation systems. Disasters
retard development gains through the destruction of
livelihoods and community assets, increase poverty,
and stimulate repopulation in high-risk (and largely
unsustainable) damaged areas. Disasters, therefore,
become perverse incentives for communities and
nations to divert from normal development processes
in order to facilitate response and recovery. From a
policy perspective then, thinking about and planning for
resilience as part of disaster risk management and
sustainable development strategies and programs be-
comes an important element in the process of achieving
sustainable and thus disaster resilient communities.
Figure 1. The path to a disaster resilient future.
3. Why is Resilience so Important Now?
Extreme natural events (either unprecedented mag-
nitudes or intensities of natural hazards, or the un-
precedented consequences of more routine hazards),
may become increasingly normal or routine under
changing climatic conditions or changes in economic
circumstances and social conditions . Coupled
with the increasing interdependence and intercon-
nectedness of society, hazards, while local in origin,
can cascade into global events with national and
international policy implications [27,28].
Low probability, high consequence events including
highly improbable ones take on more policy interest
as these events become more probable [29-31]. From
a policy perspective, such events pose significant
management challenges. The complexity, intercon-
nectedness, uncertainty, and unforeseen consequences
associated with these types of events make them
difficult to solve. Incomplete or contradictory infor-
mation, changing conditions and requirements that
are not easily recognized by decision makers, and the
complex interdependencies of the individual facets of
the problem themselves raise a set of questions as to
how one can encourage investments in risk reducing
measures prior to these unthinkable or unpredictable
events [32,33]. These so-called wicked problems are
so interconnected that in solving one aspect of the
issue, another problem one might ensue. For
example, in partial response to the Fukushima Dai'ichi
nuclear meltdown, Germany announced the closure of
all of its nuclear facilities by 2020. The closure of
nuclear power plants producing electricity raises a
wicked problem for nations who are struggling to
provide safe energy and reduce greenhouse gas
emissions that contribute to climate change [34-36].
What is the alternative? What risks are involved in
that choice? Will the nation be better or worse off?
Disaster risk cannot be completely eliminated as there
will always be some residual risk that requires
management. This premise underscores that a pro-
active approach to risk management and improving
disaster resilience is the only policy and the pragmatic
option if we are to reduce the impacts of disaster
losses in the long run.
Globalization and environmental change are
normally studied independently, but it is the inter-
action of these processes that creates double
exposures which in turn explain the uneven outcomes
of disaster impacts . These impacts are scale-
dependent, ranging from the local community to the
global, necessitating different governance structures
and management regimes at all geographic scales—
local, regional, national, international—and units of
analysis ranging from the individual to the state .
For example, the widening gap in income equality
between and within nations reduces local and national
capacities to prepare for and respond to disasters by
lowering social protection options. The eradication of
poverty is perhaps the key to achieving resilience and
more sustainable development along with socially
inclusive productive and effective governance .
Urbanization is escalating worldwide, leading to
decreasing resilience in world cities. In 2010, 52% of
the world's 6.9 billion inhabitants lived in urban areas,
mostly in the less developed world. By 2030, more
than 60% of the world's population (projected to be
8.3 billion) will live in urban areas, primarily in Asia
. Many of the major cities are located along the
coasts, on inland waterways, or in active seismic
regions—areas susceptible to cyclones, flooding, and
earthquakes. With the increasing exposure and likely
impacts associated with climate change, globally more
people are in harm's way than ever before. Unless
cities and nations become more resilient, the disaster
toll in terms of human lives and economic losses will
escalate, potentially reversing the downward trend in
fatalities over the last decade.
Finally, the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) is
nearing the end of its 10-year plan. Global consul-
tations (termed HFA2) are already underway to
develop a post-2015 disaster risk framework that
includes not only disaster risk reduction, but disaster
resilience as well. These efforts will be presented at
the World Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction in
Japan in early 2015. Simultaneously, the Millennium
Development Goals will also be completed at the end of
2015 and consultations on a post-2015 Development
Agenda also are underway. One of the universal goals,
ending poverty, has a specific disaster risk reduction
target: building resilience and reducing deaths from
natural disasters . How the HFA2 goals for risk
reduction and resilience are reflected in the post-2015
Sustainable Development Goals is uncertain. The
incorporation of resilience into the preparatory
meetings on the Post-Hyogo Framework for Action
(HFA2) and the Sustainable Development Goals
illustrates how important the concept of resilience is
to both disaster risk management and sustainable
development. This linkage enables movement from
short-term thinking and strategies to longer-term,
more sustainable practices that not only empower
communities, but enable them to improve the human
condition and reduce disaster risk.
4. Building Resilience
In reviewing the key findings of the three reports [7-9]
a general scientific consensus emerges on the need for
disaster risk management and improving resilience at
all levels of governance. The main findings are
summarized in Table 1 and briefly described below.
First, reducing risk requires a process of risk iden-
tification, development of a strategy to deal with risk,
and keeping the strategy flexible and current [9,40].
Risk management also necessitates multiple col-
laborators and stakeholders and a mix of structural or
construction-related (e.g. levees, retrofitting buildings)
and non-structural (land use, insurance) tools to ensure
Second, there is a need to demonstrate that invest-
ments in resilience will yield measureable short/long-
term benefits, but existing disaster loss and damage
data need improvements in order to do so. For example,
there is no consistent standard for measuring losses or
which losses should be counted (e.g. deaths, property,
decline in nature's services, or cultural assets in the
Third, resilience has many different facets (eco-
nomic, infrastructure, environmental, social, insti-
tutional, organizational, psychosocial) and objects of
study (individuals, buildings, sectors, systems, com-
munities, cities) . While some national and
international efforts are underway to measure com-
munity resilience [45-47], at present these efforts are
not consistent with one another and often do not agree
on what needs to be measured. Some important
elements include critical infrastructure performance
after disasters, social factors that influence the capacity
to recover, the ability of structures to withstand the
impact from disasters as related directly to building
codes and their enforcement, the ability of businesses
and markets to recover, and caring for special needs
populations in times of crises.
Fourth, communities vary in their size, composition,
and the range of hazards they are exposed to. A one-
size-fits-all strategy for enhancing resilience does not
consider the uniqueness and complexities of com-
munities' physical and social structures. Instead, efforts
should be directed towards building strong local
capacity so that community members are engaged in
disaster policy and practice, help communicate risk,
adopt risk reduction measures, and plan for the worst,
but strive for the best when a disaster hits their
community . Finally, many communities and
nations do not have an overall vision or coordinating
strategy for disaster resilience. A need exists for
strong and complementary governance from local,
state, and federal policies so they don't work at cross-
purposes . Policies at all levels also need to take
longer-term views rather than address short-term
political expediencies .
There are a number of enabling conditions that can
help foster disaster resilience at local to national
levels. First and foremost, there must be leadership
and the political will to embark on a different path for
managing disaster risk. Without such leadership,
resilience actions will be short-lived and will not
achieve the longer-term desired benefits. Another
enabling condition is governmental engagement in
risk reduction, one of the leading pillars of the Hyogo
Framework for Action (see Figure 1). Such engage-
ment should occur at all levels (from local to national)
so that the combined governmental efforts are
complimentary and working toward a common goal,
rather than working at cross-purposes. Similarly, risk
reduction should entail cross-sector linkages, involving
private interests and civil society. Communities must
be willing (and able) to engage in peer to peer
learning and to take good ideas from one place and
adapt them to their own circumstances. Lastly,
resilience must be integrated into overall planning
efforts that address infrastructure deficits, improve
livelihoods and economic opportunities, and reduce
social inequalities, ideals embodied in the Millennium
Table 1. Actions to increase disaster resilience.
• Manage risks with flexible strategies and multiple tools
◦ Integrate disaster risk management and planning into day-to-day activities
◦ Encourage public-private cooperation in risk management
◦ Use complimentary approaches and tools (structural, non-structural)
◦ Develop an essential framework of codes, standards and guidelines that increase resilience of
◦ Implement risk-based pricing of insurance
• Improve the accuracy and consistency of disaster data
◦ Establish and improve a national/international databases on disaster-related information
◦ Document disaster deaths, injuries, property loss, impacts on economic activity
◦ Improve valuation of community assets including ecosystem services
◦ Estimate future disaster losses for planning
◦ Improve risk management information and integrated models of exposure and vulnerability
• Measure resilience and chart progress toward achieving it
◦ Establish a baseline of resilience for nation and communities
◦ Create metrics for measuring progress and effectiveness of actions
◦ Ensure robust analyses of the effectiveness of actions and programs to build resilience
• Build strong local capacity
◦ Foster early engagement stakeholders and residents in the risk management process and
collaborative problem solving
◦ Create and financially support broad-based community resilience coalitions
◦ Ensure local governments adhere to modern zoning laws, and adopt and enforce building codes
◦ Share experiences, learn from other communities, innovate
• Create an overall vision or coordinating strategy for disaster resilience
◦ Incorporate resilience as a guiding principle in practice and programs at all government levels
◦ Review resilience policy and programs and undertake self-assessments to ensure coordination
of federal to local efforts
◦ Develop and share guidance on resilience initiatives from global to local scales;
◦ Incentivize private sector and non-governmental organizations to engage in resilience activities
5. How Do We Get There?
Many different avenues are available for achieving the
long-term viability and self-sufficiency of communities
with respect to hazards and disasters. The pathway
for achieving the vision of a resilient nation in 2030
for the United States, for example, begins with the
aspiration to establish a culture of resilience through
leadership from the federal government with a full
and clear commitment to disaster resilience . In
order to achieve such a goal a number of steps would
be needed; steps that are targeted to national and
local governments, stakeholders, and citizens. First, in
addition to this recognizable culture across the nation,
there would be the knowledge and understanding that
communities (and individuals) would be the first line
of defense in enhancing resilience by taking
responsibility for their actions in managing (or
mismanaging) disaster risk. Second, leadership is an
important component in fostering resilience, and there
would be national leadership in all federal agencies
and in Congress as well as local and state advocates
championing the values of disaster resilience. Such
leadership would insure that infrastructure systems
are upgraded and redundant in order to lessen the
impacts of disasters. It also would ensure a periodic
review of federal, state, and local programs or policies
to insure that resilience actions are supported not
reduced. Third, community-led resilience efforts would
receive federal, state, and regional investments and
support. Reliance on underfunded and solely volunteer
efforts would become the exception, not the rule.
Fourth, to more fully manage risks, local zoning
ordinances would be enacted and enforced, as would
building codes and retrofit standards. Such enforce-
ment would enhance disaster resilience at the local
level as these ordinances and codes are under local
jurisdictions, not state or federal control. Fifth, site
specific risk information would be readily available at
all scales and effectively communicated to relevant
stakeholders from local to national levels. And finally,
insurance premiums would become risk-based, so that
individuals and communities with the highest risk
would bear a greater share of the cost of risk pre-
miums. This would enable post-disaster recovery to be
funded primarily through private capital and insurance
payouts rather than federal resources. More
importantly, such actions would provide the financial
mechanism to ensure that communities and individuals
take responsibility for their risk decision making.
If these proactive steps were taken, we could see a
reduction in the per capita federal cost of responding
to disasters in the U.S. We would also see a decline in
overall disaster losses because of these long-term
investments in resilience.
Disaster resilience links disaster risk management and
sustainable development, especially in the developing
world. Unlike the national example, the global path
requires some transformative shifts in the business-as-
usual model, one that is more planet-sensitive, people-
centric, and harmonized with local-national approaches
such as those outlined above for the U.S. The five pillars
of the global transformation include: to leave no one
behind; put sustainable development at the core;
transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth; build
peace and transparent and accountable institutions; and
forge new global partnerships . If such a trans-
formative shift takes place, by 2030 the world would see
increased resilience and improved quality of life. There
would be fewer people in extreme poverty, more
children living beyond the age of five, less mortality from
childbirth, more sustainable use of natural resources,
improvements in education and employment, and more
participatory governance and accountability at all levels
(local to regional to national). More significantly, such
actions would result in 220 million fewer people suffering
the crippling effects of disasters (, p. 19).
The present focus on the disaster cycle must be
targeted more broadly on strategies to build resilience
as the transition to sustainability. The mechanisms
involve managing disaster risk, undertaking
institutional reform of policies and practices at all
governance levels, building local capacity, devel-
opment and deployment of tools and metrics for
monitoring progress, and investment in the reduction
of gaps in our scientific information, data, and
observation systems. As the World Bank recently
stated, "the international community should lead by
example by further promoting approaches that
progressively link climate and disaster resilience to
broader development paths, and funding them
appropriately" (, p. 9). The most significant chal-
lenges to achieving the transformation are institutional,
political will, and leadership and these challenges exist
at global to local scales.
Enhancing disaster resilience requires the
coordinated efforts of individuals, families, commu-
nities, the private sector, and government at all levels.
The path to disaster resilience requires a blending of
top-down (global to local) and bottom-up (local to
global) approaches as no single person, agency, or
institution has all the responsibility for improving
resilience; must be a collective effort with shared
responsibilities. Achieving disaster resilience will not be
cheap or easy, but it is becoming both an economic
necessity and a moral imperative. We must have the
political will to move from the present focus on short-
term disaster response to a longer-term vision of a more
sustainable future that embodies the basic principles of
resilience as outlined here. When we have achieved
some success in enhancing our collective resilience to
disasters, we will secure the future livelihoods and
prosperity for our children's future.
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