Resilience Reflection #29: Preparing with and for each other

In this issue of  Resilience Reflections Sean Vrielink  highlights the complex nature of vulnerability, while underscoring the significance of one’s mindset in building resilience, illustrated through experiences in teaching students in Pakistan and advocating for proactive disaster preparedness regardless of circumstances.

In this regular series by the  Resilience@UT  and  4TU Resilience , UT researchers share their personal reflections on current events and trends that impact our daily lives, exploring their implications for resilience. The series is just one of many UT initiatives responding to the urgent need to respond to rapid societal and environmental change. As an academic institution, we have a role to play in strengthening the resilience of the social, technological and environmental systems that support us. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own. 

Resilience: Preparing with and for each other

A decade ago, I examined resilience for my PhD in disaster management and am now teaching this topic in the master’s course, Urban Resilience in a Changing Climate. Inevitably the question is posed: ’How do we increase resilience’’.

When I think of resilience, it is always a question ’of what, and to what’’. There are several underlying questions too. What do we consider a normal state? What do we expect ’everybody’ to be able to do in order to preserve this state? What seemingly starts as an objective, statistically measurable (or estimated) concept actually revolves around culturally determined but unwritten rules.

Vulnerable populations

During my doctoral research, I evaluated many publications on resilience, specifically on the resilience of people to natural hazards, and four categories of characteristics of potentially vulnerable people emerged again and again. These are people who:

  1. are less physically or mentally capable (infants, older adults, people with disabilities)
  2. possess fewer material and/or financial resources (low-income households, homeless)
  3. have less knowledge or experience (children, illiterate, foreigners, tourists)
  4. are restricted by commitments (people taking care of children, people with pets, rescue workers)


It is important to emphasize that these characteristics make one potentially vulnerable, but it is not a given. Individuals can also have multiple characteristics at the same time, and they can change over time of course. Addressing the root causes of the vulnerability associated with material/financial resources (2) and limitations in knowledge or experience (3) can greatly increase the overall resilience of a community or society.

Mindsets matter

Still, this list doesn’t capture the mindset of people, which can in theory help increase resilience. The stark difference between those who are more distanced from one more of the four characteristics and those who are closer to them, becomes most clear to me when I teach in an online lecture to students of the University of Management and Technology in Lahore, Pakistan. In the lecture, I show how green infrastructure can be used to reduce the negative impacts of climate change such as the urban heat island effect and floods. It is similar to the lecture I teach students here at UT, but our students, though international, never ask how such infrastructure is funded whereas the Pakistani students consistently ask this question. Their mindset is stuck in what seems impossible to do, given their repeated experiences of lack of funding, lack of resources, lack of governmental support, lack of knowledge, and lack of awareness. I provide the students with examples of organizations that help fund green infrastructure projects, but the students need more motivation to take it from there. For them, it is more empowering if they can fund their own projects rather than be tied to funding requirements that set limits and/or specific expectations on what can be done.

Just prepare

On a smaller scale, it is more fun to think about what to put in an emergency evacuation bag if one has the means to buy and store these items, can evacuate when necessary, and knows of a safe place with welcoming people. My advice to my students living in more disaster-prone areas, when they feel blocked by inhibiting thoughts that prevent them from acting for their own disaster preparation, is to simply do it anyway. Prepare themselves and their family and friends as best they can. Do it if living in poverty, if living with disabilities, if taking care of other people. Asking for help is a skill to learn and doing it can strengthen community ties and raise awareness of how to prepare together. The Japanese cultural mindset during evacuations is to first check on their neighbors and their ability to leave, before evacuating themselves and their own families. I believe resilience is a mindset we can learn both as individuals and as a society.

References

Vink, K. (2014). Vulnerable people and flood risk management policies (PhD Thesis). National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, Tokyo, Japan. https://www.grips.ac.jp/e­n/dtds3/ka­rina_vink/

About the author

Sean Vrielink is a lecturer on the topic of urban green infrastructure at the Construction Management and Engineering (CME) department and currently examines how to quantify the effects of green infrastructure on the overall goal of sustainable water and energy resource management.

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