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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January-February 2009

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Editors' Picks - January/February 2009

Living with Drought
Rohan Nelson, Mark Howden, and Mark Stafford Smith, “Using Adaptive Governance to Rethink the Way Science Supports Australian Drought Policy,” Environmental Science & Policy 11, no. 7 (2008): 588–601

Drought affects many areas around the world, including some parts of Australia, India, and southern Africa, and its impacts have been felt acutely in terms of local livelihoods, particularly in the agricultural sector. Periods of intense drought frequently have unveiled inadequacies in government intervention programs such as drought assistance, early warnings, and food security interventions, most notably for the hardest-hit farmers. Although floods and other extreme events often attract greater press coverage and relief aid than do droughts, effective drought risk reduction requires as much attention as the more rapid events. Government approaches to reduce the impacts of drought also merit a more in-depth assessment. This is particularly true as climate variability has emerged as a major concern in developing as well as developed countries.

In their article in the November 2008 issue of Environmental Science & Policy, Rohan Nelson, Mark Howden, and Mark Stafford Smith, researchers at the Australian science agency Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), highlight adaptive governance—an approach that integrates scientific and local knowledge and recognizes behavioral complexity—as an alternative for framing government and science interactions around drought policy response.

In Australia, drought assistance policy has arguably become something of a three-way tug-of-war among agricultural scientists who argue that some policymakers have made the process too subjective by straying from strict biophysical drought indicators; some economists who find intervention unnecessary; and some farmers and analysts who hold that the policy is unfair. In addition, the national and state governments’ means of determining drought misses a great deal of local variation. Case-based research is one approach to better inform policy and address some of these concerns, but such isolated and arguably piecemeal assessments may be insufficient if we are to really make inroads into building resilience to future climate change and variability.

Nelson and his colleagues call for a more careful examination of interactions among the scientific community, government, and wider civic society. Central to this is determining what current and future institutional architectures and governance processes will be required to build resilience to drought stress for improved drought policy. Under the current policy, the authors note, government has a formal connection to scientific organizations through its advisory group and, in some cases, a distant relationship with farmers. Moreover, the balanced social, economic, and biophysical (including rainfall analysis, remote sensed data, and soil water analysis) criteria contained in policy and used to make grant assistance in times of drought are sometimes not well captured in grant assistance assessments. Since the science used to assist in making these criteria is usually heavily dominated by biophysical data and is also uncertain, the process can often give little reference to the array of issues and challenges facing decisionmakers.

The authors underscore the need to thus move beyond traditional, top-down reductionist approaches, which, despite being driven and supported by strong science, can often lead to managing drought in the short term rather than addressing the larger socioecological picture. Their suggested alternative consideration is for adaptive governance, which encourages flexibility and polycentric decisionmaking—including ongoing dialogues between governments and resource users—in the attempt to co-design and facilitate policy objectives. For example, they call for a more detailed examination of already-existing common property efforts to manage natural resources (such as Landcare and Catchment Management Authorities) for insights into more flexible, regionally distributed loci for science and local knowledge integration. Given the urgency of climate change and variability, Nelson and his colleagues at CSIRO have opened the door for wider discussion on science-policy interaction and calls for similar research and investigation.

Coleen Vogel
University of the Witwatersrand Johannesburg
South Africa

A Roadmap to Resilience
Fran H. Norris, Susan P. Stevens, Betty Pfefferbaum, Karen F. Wyche, and Rose L. Pfefferbaum, “Community Resilience as a Metaphor, Theory, Set of Capacities, and Strategy for Disaster Readiness,” American Journal of Community Psychology 41, no. 1–2 (2008): 127–50

As the 2008 hurricane season fades in our memory with so few lessons learned, disaster planners and researchers face a sore need for creative thinking about the ways community resources shape disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. Dartmouth Medical School professor of psychiatry Fran H. Norris and colleagues deliver this wake-up call in their article in the March 2008 American Journal of Community Psychology, a synthesis of the state of the art on disaster resilience that draws extensively from the multidisciplinary fields of disasters, hazards, and risk research.

The authors define community resilience not as an outcome but as “a process linking a set of networked adaptive capacities to a positive trajectory of functioning and adaptation in constituent populations after a disturbance.” The set of capacities encompasses four resources—economic development, social capital, information and communication, and community competence—that together provide the guide for disaster readiness.

For example, social capital includes a sense of community, informal social ties, social support systems, citizen participation, and civic leadership. So efforts to bolster community resilience could focus on enhancing social support systems in the aftermath of disasters. These include but are not limited to mental health programs and community outreach to empower residents to become more proactive in mitigation strategies to reduce the disaster’s impact.

The outcome of resilience— adaptation—can be measured by a high prevalence in the community of mental and behavioral health; adequate role functioning (at home, school, or work); and a high quality of life. Using population wellness as an indicator for adaptation has several advantages, the authors argue. Perhaps most importantly, it keeps the responsibility for developing resilience within the traditional channels of those appointed to protect lives and minimize damage after disasters, and it can be monitored and used in post- disaster assessments.

It is significant that the authors recognize the challenges of building disaster resilience in communities. Instead of a singular metric, they contend that the value of the resilience concept is its ability to describe the characteristics of and interactions between stressors (disasters), adaptive capacities, and wellness. To foster resilience, communities must reduce risk; address resource inequities; engage residents in mitigation; enhance social supports; develop organizational connections among private, public, and nongovernmental entities; plan for crises; and develop trusted sources of information. It is a tall, but not impossible order—and one that is vital for reducing the impacts of the next disaster on local communities.

Susan L. Cutter
 University of South Carolina

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