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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March-April 2013

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Commentary: On Resilience, Adaptation and Adjustability

The year 2012 was the second wettest on record for the British Isles, and the wettest ever for England. Flooding took place where no flooding had ever occurred before: More than 8,000 properties experienced flood damage with more than 3.6 million properties known to be at risk.1

Yet the beginning of the year experienced the driest spring also ever recorded. In late March there were official drought orders and hosepipe (watering) bans throughout southern and eastern England.

What this experience suggests is that “the weather” will never be “normal” and that “climate change” is a reality, even if not guaranteed to be human induced as current climate science predicts. It also indicates that the institutions of flood management in the United Kingdom will have to adapt by adjustments that are tolerable for their mandates and their lobbyists. For example, the Association of British Insurers has told the government that it will no longer underwrite flood and coastal insurance payments where there is no improvement in existing defenses. The insurance industry is even hinting that “acts of God” may be reinterpreted as “acts of man” and hence are not eligible for coverage. Yet the government, facing an unprecedented deficit, has cut the flood defense budget by 15%. This means that some 294 flood protection schemes are either on hold or abandoned. There is a tense standoff with the insurers and even more with the widening array of exposed owners of properties not used to having to deal with the horrifying aftermath of floods.

All of this experience reveals what Susan Cutter and Claire Rubin outline in their reports and commentaries. It is no longer possible to confront hazard by rebuilding and replacing. Yet both the politics and the psychology of adaptation still challenge new approaches and reformist planning procedures. Giving way to nature is not an easy option for communities and politicians, as there are powerful lobbies seeking to restore the status quo and to maintain business confidence. Many flood-prone areas near rivers and on the coast are very attractive for residential and commercial enterprise, so they enjoy robust property prices. It is not easy to accept a loss of property value through planning blight or uncertainty of future protection if there is no guarantee of compensation. And if compensation is even to be considered, there are huge disputes as to who should pay and for what degree of adaptation. So adaptation may be unavoidable, but the institutions and economics of adaptation are still newborn.

Maybe there is a deep psychological unease over “giving way to nature.” It is not just a matter of a dislike of some sort of defeatism. Much more relevant is the very considerable momentum and inertia for maintaining restoration in situ. The agencies of hazard management operate on the basis of well-funded resettlement, usually following lucrative disaster relief monies and political patronage. It is more difficult to turn them around to fundamental adaptation through redesign and relocation.

This is why it may be necessary to pass through three phases in disaster management and hazard mitigation and avoidance: acceptance, resilience, and adjustment. The vital first stage is the need for community-wide acceptance of the scientific case for increased danger and vulnerability. This requires excellent modeling and sensitive communication, as well as the creation of community-based hazard response forums with real resources and legal backing. Such forums are not yet sufficiently representative of overall public interests, especially for the poor and vulnerable, usually less heard and most exposed to danger. So this arrangement requires a synergy between science and public participation of a genuine executive kind. In essence such community flood forums should have the power to adapt and to plan through sequential adjustment of re-siting and relocation.

A second stage is to move from resilience to adaptation. The Cutter report was geared to resilience, as this was its mandate. But resilience is not necessarily adaptive. Nor does its outcome relate to sustainability. Indeed, robust responses that could be regarded as resilient (such as flood-proofing) could take up lots of resources and still result in long-term costs. And flood-proofing may encourage people to remain in locations that will become more flood prone as climate change rolls out. So resilience needs to be couched in terms of sustainable adaptation.

This brings in the third process, namely, that of adjustment. Hazard management institutions need time, space, and lobbying rearrangement in order to cope with the new realities of “advanced hazard.” This in turn will take a new form of adaptive science. This is a science of engagement, of conversing, of seeking accommodation and of experimentation and monitoring of outcomes. It will need new measures of fairness, equity, and betterment. It will relate to creative modeling and to imaginative scenario building and storytelling. It will bring on the local media, social networking, and the schools. This is the science of the sustainability transition. We cannot jump too fast to adapt effectively and reliably. We need stages of adjustment couched in very creative approaches to communication and redesign of governance. And that, in turn, needs a psychology of humility and accommodation where everyone participates, even if not actively.

1. Committee on Climate Change, Adaptation Sub Committee, Climate Change: Is the UK Prepared for Flooding and Water Scarcity? (London, UK: Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2012).

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