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Evidence from measuring community flood resilience in Asia



In 2017 alone, disasters caused a reported $9.4 billion worth of damage across the Asian region (CRED 2018); a figure that is likely a gross underestimation (Wirtz et al. 2014, Guha-Sapir and Below 2002, Ladds et al. 2017). The number of people in Asia living and working in areas exposed to disasters is increasing, in many cases at a higher rate than population growth (UNISDR 2011). The critical driving force behind this increase in the disaster-exposed population is high migration into at-risk areas, particularly flood-affected coastal zones (CRED 2015). Within Asia, where 90% of the world’s floodexposed people live, floods are the most frequent type of disaster. Between 1970 and 2014, more people were affected by floods than by all other disaster types combined. The incidence of flooding in the region is growing steeply (UNESCAP 2015). When mapping the locations of the world’s major floods from 1985 to 2010, Kundzewicz et al. (2014) found that many are centered in South and East Asian hubs of economic development. There is an urgent need to tackle this challenge before further socioeconomic drivers and climate change converge to create unprecedented risk of catastrophes that could undo decades of economic growth across Asia. Resilience has emerged as a concept with much potential to help address this difficult problem (Keating et al. 2016). This paper presents evidence from a recent community flood resilience measurement program in 88 communities across Asia.

Disasters pose a significant threat to Asia’s socioeconomic growth, particularly by undermining business performance, long-term competitiveness, and sustainability (UNISDR 2013). Especially in rural areas, disasters can trap people in poverty, rendering them unable to benefit from or contribute to Asia’s economic growth, and in some cases forcing them to migrate to cities out of economic necessity (Berhanu 2011; Carter et al. 2007; Jakobsen 2012; Heltberg, Hossain, and Reva 2012). Not only can disasters impact development and urbanization trends, but the drive for economic development is the key force behind increasing disaster risk. This is because the increased population movement and economic connectivity of development draws people to hazardous areas, especially on the outskirts of cities (Hallegatte 2011; Fernandez and Sanahuj 2012; Braun and Assheuer 2011; UNISDR 2011, 2015). For example, in Bangladesh, internal rural-to-urban migration is resulting in a population explosion in the highly flood-exposed slums of the capital Dhaka (Braun and Assheuer 2011).

The current approach to disaster risk management (DRM) could be enhanced to more effectively tackle these troubling trends. This evolution in approach is required because while the Hyogo Framework for Action (UNISDR 2005) years (2005–2015) saw significant progress in reducing disaster-related mortality (in relative terms) (UNISDR 2013), similar success was not seen in tackling the underlying drivers of increasing disaster risk (UNISDR 2015). This is for two key reasons: Firstly, it requires ex ante risk reduction, which is difficult to motivate because of skewed incentives, including biased perception of risk, cognitive biases, and budget constraints (Kunreuther, Meyer, and MichelKerjan 2013) as well as political disincentives to reduce risk (Bull-Kamanga et al. 2003). Secondly, that ex ante action must take an integrated and holistic approach—a systems-based approach—rather than an approach narrowly focused on hazard management (Keating et al. 2016).

A systems-based approach, also denoted by terms such as “integrated” or “holistic,” is one that considers the complex and dynamic interconnections between disaster risk, disaster impacts, DRM, and development more generally. It considers not only physical or economic aspects, but human, social, and environmental ones, too. Taking such a systems-based approach to tackle these drivers is often outside the sphere of influence of the DRM sector as it currently exists, since it requires that disaster risk be mainstreamed into much wider decision-making on infrastructure investment, urban planning, and many other development arenas. The value of this type of approach has been recognized for some time, for example, in social risk management championed by the World Bank (2003). Social risk management has long recognized that tackling underlying economic vulnerability is essential for ensuring that shocks do not derail development and as such, is intrinsically interconnected with DRM. Like social risk management, a systems-based approach to DRM requires shifts in thinking.

The tools commonly used in the DRM space to inform investment decision-making—namely economic optimization methods such as cost–benefit analysis (CBA)—also fall victim to these difficulties. When assessing the application of CBA for disaster risk reduction, Mechler et al. (2014) find that these assessments rarely consider multiple disaster risk reduction interventions, and systemic interventions are “almost completely ignored” (Mechler et al. 2014, 40). CBA struggles to take full account of the costs and benefits of ex ante risk reduction because the intangible costs of disasters, such as mortality, environmental amenity, ecosystem services, and cultural heritage, are notoriously difficult to estimate monetarily (Venton and Venton 2004, MMC 2005, Mora et al. 2009, Mechler et al. 2008). Other issues include difficulties in selecting discount rates (and fundamental objections to their use at all), and the assumption that people are risk neutral. Finally, Mechler et al. (2014) contend that the lack of compensation for costs bared in practice (in violation of the Kaldor–Hicks criterion) means that distribution of costs and benefits remains a key challenge.

Slowing the rapid increase in exposure across Asia requires risk-informed development and urban planning—a challenging proposition complicated by conflicting economic and political incentives (Schipper and Pelling 2006, Bull-Kamanga et al. 2003, Wamsler and Brink 2014, Keating et al. 2016). Traction to address the proliferating disaster risk across Asia requires a shift in approach, away from the status quo to one that can shine a light on the underlying drivers of risk and motivate investment in a more systemic way. Therefore, resilience has been identified as a useful concept in the field, because it has the potential to facilitate a shift in perspective and practice toward a holistic and integrated approach that emphasizes ex ante.

In addition to a conceptual shift toward resilience, there is a parallel need to focus on addressing disaster impacts and risk management options at the community level. This is because disaster impacts are felt most viscerally at the community level and therefore, community-level actions to tackle growing disaster risk and address impacts can be highly cost-effective. Currently, the need for investments in DRM is receiving increasing attention at the national level. For example, all Asian countries are signatories to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which outlines muchneeded national-level action (UNISDR 2015). Aggregated information about disaster impacts and DRM needs at the national level is becoming more readily available, for example, in the form of databases, including in support of Hyogo and Sendai reporting frameworks. In contrast, information about community-level disaster impacts and risk management options is typically ad hoc, location specific, and qualitative. When undertaken using methods such as CBA, community DRM investment planning tends to be narrow and static. Bringing these together, we suggest that protecting Asia’s socioeconomic growth requires complementing national-level action with bolstering investment to build community-level disaster resilience, informed by data from community disaster resilience measurement endeavors.

In this paper, we provide in the background section an overview of the concept of disaster resilience, and key precepts and challenges of measurement, particularly at the community level. In this overview, we highlight the need for data to inform investment in community-level disaster resilience building, by community-based organizations, such as nongovernment organizations (NGOs). In the methods section, we describe an approach to measuring community resilience to flooding, by which we have gathered the data used in our analysis. We then present and discuss the results of our analysis, highlighting key measures pertinent to community flood resilience across Asia. Finally, we present two case studies that provide an in-depth look at how measurement can mobilize investment into building community flood resilience in practice.


Asian Development Bank
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