Creeping crises–does resilience fit?

BCAW2019 - Investing in Resilience - by Rick Stone

I was flying over Warragamba Dam a few weeks ago and was struck by just how low 55% capacity really is.  Sydney Water says that levels across 11 dams in Greater Sydney are dropping faster than they have in decades.  Every week the city is using 0.4% of the storage (11 billion litres or enough to fill 4,400 Olympic pools).  The desalination plant has been turned on to supplement the city’s supply.  Rain over the Sydney basin in March means the city is green; but the catchment largely missed out.  So Sydney, along with most of the rest of the state, is suffering one of nature’s most insidious creeping crises—drought.

How is the concept of resilience relevant to a slow-burn or chronic hazard, like drought?  Organisations like to talk about being resilient, but what does this really mean?  Many businesses think a resilient organisation is one that successfully navigates disruption or chaos.  The focus is usually on acute impacts, such as flood, fire, fraud or flu.  Organisations attempt to prevent the problem, cope with it if it occurs, and adapt to a new normal (if they survive).  But it’s hard to measure the success of these programs: did the organisation survive because it had really good preventative strategies, or were they just quick on their feet with a response, or have just been lucky?

Another concept of resilience is “adaptability”.  Resilient organisations can be adaptable to shocks – the traditional acute impact; and they can also be adaptable to slower, less obvious stresses.  Farming is a good example—a resilient farmer needs to be able to adapt to the impact of a bushfire (acute) and a drought (chronic).  The challenge is to recognise the slowly evolving stress and respond early enough to minimise its impact.  These are difficult decisions—does the community invest in building an expensive water pipeline when “it might rain tomorrow”?  The Resilient Cities initiative, pioneered by the Rockerfeller Foundation, recognises the importance of adapting to both stresses and shocks.  Cities including Sydney and Melbourne have adopted resilience strategies that embrace this concept.  Businesses and other organisations can benefit from a similar approach.

Our communities, and the natural and economic environments on which they depend, face significant stresses.  As resilience practitioners, we need to ask ourselves; are we paying attention to the slowly evolving risks and politically complex challenges, such as climate change?  Or are we staying in the comfort zone of planning and practising for acute impacts?

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