Can we measure the ability to 'bounce back' from disasters?

by Haseeb Md. Irfanullah | Practical Action - Bangladesh
Thursday, 17 July 2014 12:30 GMT

A fisherman's house in the middle of a fish pen leans to one side as it is pounded by waves, strong winds and rain brought by Typhoon Rammasun (known locally as Glenda) in the coastal town of Bacoor, Cavite, southwest of Manila, on July 16, 2014. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Calculating resilience isn’t easy but a new effort may help communities understand if they are well prepared, or not

When we buy insurance for our cars, we get our risks measured. But, is it possible to calculate the strength of a Bangladeshi family fighting floods this monsoon and come up with a score?

Many researchers have tried measuring what might be called the “bouncing back” capacity (or resilience) of a group of people. What it actually means is you will set some criteria and then evaluate if these people have enough ability to return back to their original state after a disaster hits.

It is sometimes possible to describe what creates resilience in words. But it is not so easy to select features and calculate the “bouncing back” capacity of a village and its people.

To do it, we need to know what a community might have. Usually there are five major assets: people, social connections, natural resources, physical infrastructure and finances. These are called five capitals or ‘5C’.

In disaster risk reduction efforts, new technologies or systems are often introduced to a community to make them resilient against disasters. These things can help the community face disasters better, making the communities more ‘robust’ or improve use of resources, making people more ‘resourceful.’ We may see the community taking up a wide range of activities if they lose their primary activity – something called ‘redundancy.’ And finally, the community needs some level of ‘rapidity’ while recovering from losses. These four features are called ‘4R’.

Now, if we take five capitals and try to see how 4R are doing in each case in a flooding situation, we can come up with a scoring system to measure communities’ strengths against the floods.

Recently, five organizations have come together to try out such an innovative tool in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mexico, Nepal and Peru over the next couple of years. They are Zurich Insurance Group, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Practical Action and the Wharton Risk Center.

As one may expect, bringing insurers, humanitarians, practitioners and researchers together is quite a big task. It is even more challenging to reach a consensus on issues like resilience, which is quite complex in its own right. But this new attempt has created a good opportunity to determine the “bouncing back” capacity of distressed populations in measureable form.

The changing climate makes “bouncing back” – or resilience – calculation a moving target. Putting numbers on community resilience is, therefore, a very ambitious attempt. But it is surely an attempt worth trying.

Haseeb Md. Irfanullah leads the disaster risk reduction and climate change programme of Practical Action in Bangladesh. He can be reached at