What is disaster resilience?

Disaster resilience is the ability of individuals, communities, organisations and states to adapt to and recover from hazards, shocks or stresses without compromising long-term prospects for development. According to the Hyogo Framework for Action (UNISDR, 2005), disaster resilience is determined by the degree to which individuals, communities and public and private organisations are capable of organising themselves to learn from past disasters and reduce their risks to future ones, at international, regional, national and local levels.

Definitions of disaster resilience

DFID (2011a, 6): ‘the ability of countries, communities and households to manage change, by maintaining or transforming living standards in the face of shocks or stresses – such as earthquakes, drought or violent conflict – without compromising their long-term prospects’.

Hyogo Framework of Action (UNISDR, 2005b, 4): ‘the capacity of a system, community or society potentially exposed to hazards to adapt, by resisting or changing in order to reach and maintain an acceptable level of functioning and structure’.

Disaster resilience is part of the broader concept of resilience – ‘the ability of individuals, communities and states and their institutions to absorb and recover from shocks, whilst positively adapting and transforming their structures and means for living in the face of long-term changes and uncertainty’ (OECD, 2013b, 1).

In conceptual terms, vulnerability and disaster resilience are closely related. Some authors see vulnerability as the opposite of disaster resilience, while others view vulnerability as a risk factor and disaster resilience as the capacity to respond (Manyena, 2006, 436, 439-443).

In practice, DFID’s framework (DFID, 2011a, 6-7; diagram below) depicts the core elements of disaster resilience as follows:

  • Context: Whose resilience is being built – such as a social group, socio-economic or political system, environmental context or institution.
  • Disturbance: What shocks (sudden events like conflict or disasters) and/or stresses (long-term trends like resource degradation, urbanisation, or climate change) the group aims to be resilient to.
  • Capacity to respond: The ability of a system or process to deal with a shock or stress depends on exposure (the magnitude of the shock or stress), sensitivity (the degree to which a system will be affected by, or will respond to, a given shock or stress), and adaptive capacity (how well it can adjust to a disturbance or moderate damage, take advantage of opportunities and cope with the consequences of a transformation).
  • Reaction: A range of responses are possible, including: bounce back better, where capacities are enhanced, exposures are reduced, and the system is more able to deal with future shocks and stresses; bounce back, where pre-existing conditions prevail; or recover, but worse than before, meaning capacities are reduced. In the worst-case scenario, the system collapses, leading to a catastrophic reduction in capacity to cope with the future.
A system or process is resilient to shocks and stresses. It's capacity depends on exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity, which can result in bouncing back better, recovering worse than before, or collapse.

Disaster resilience has been described as both an outcome and a process (Manyena, 2006, 436-439). Practices focused on outcome have tended to adopt top-down reactive approaches which can favour the status quo and take attention away from inequalities resulting from insecurity and disaster (Manyena, 2006, 438). As a process, building disaster resilience involves supporting the capacity of individuals, communities and states to adapt through assets and resources relevant to their context (Manyena, 2006, 439). For some, this implies enhancing peoples’ rights and addressing socio-economic, gender and environmental inequalities that exacerbate vulnerability (Andharia et al., 2010, 11; Oxfam, 2013).

  • Andharia, J., et al. (2010). Towards disaster resilience index for vulnerable communities: a Mumbai study. Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
  • DFID (2011a). Defining Disaster Resilience: A DFID Approach Paper. DFID.
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  • Manyena, S.B. (2006). The Concept of Resilience Revisited. Disasters, 30(4), 434–450.
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  • OECD (2013b). What Does “Resilience” Mean for Donors? An OECD Factsheet. OECD.
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  • Oxfam (2013). No accident. Resilience and the inequality of risk. Oxfam International.
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  • UNISDR (2005b). Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters. World Conference on Disaster Reduction. 18-22 January 2005, Kobe, Hyogo, Japan. A/CONF.206/6. UNISDR.
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