Drought. Flood. Cyclone. Fire.

Local communities are most affected by the increased threat of adverse weather events. Addressing that threat requires nations and communities to prepare for and mitigate the effects of climate change. A recently published working paper from the Evidence Project, “Resilience and Community Response to Climate-related Events, contributes to the understanding of how vulnerable local communities respond to climate change, and how governments, aid organizations, and researchers can help those communities to strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity. In this paper my colleague Aviva Klein Meyers from Stanford University and I review definitions of resilience and present four case studies of community response to extreme weather events to illustrate community resilience in action: drought in Ethiopia, flood in Mozambique, cyclone in the Philippines, and forest fire in Indonesia.

The term “resilience” stands out as one often used when discussing how to respond to the threat of adverse weather events. It is generally understood as the ability of a system to cope with a hazard, like weather events and their impacts, by responding in ways that maintain the system’s essential function while expanding its ability to learn and change. In developing countries, resilience frequently takes the form of poor rural communities adjusting their lifestyles in response to climate change, rather than more formal, concerted, and organized efforts to build resilience.

The paper’s case studies show that community networks and social capital are key to a community’s ability to cope and adapt in the aftermath of a natural disaster and that the most effective responses often emerge from the community itself, based on indigenous knowledge and effective social networks. Attention to health—notably clean water for sanitation, infection control, and access to medicines and health services—also featured across the countries, although less consistently than other factors, and mostly as a response from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The need for family planning to build resilience was noted only in Ethiopia.

Traditional Knowledge Aids Recovery From Drought in Ethiopia

Traditional knowledge is a factor in community response to drought in Ethiopia. Pastoralist communities rely on traditional medicines for treating crop and livestock diseases. Indigenous people use environmental indicators such as the behavior of animals, wind, and sky, as well as cultural beliefs like God’s role in managing the weather, to forecast weather conditions. People pray to God for help and support, and elders especially are expected to pray. Another custom—and perhaps the most significant coping strategy of Ethiopian communities and households—is the reliance on traditional community networks. Community members in need often turn to family members and friends for loans of money, food, and goods, and these needs are willingly met when possible. But the social network extends far beyond these close ties. Redistribution of resources within communities—called Dabere in Borana—is an expected and often compulsory act in which all community members take part when struggling with an event like a drought.

Health Issues Rise After Floods in Mozambique

The literature on resilience and coping with flooding in Mozambique includes attention to health issues and responses to them related to this weather event. An assessment of the role of local institutions in reducing the vulnerability of at-risk communities in central Mozambique in response to flooding in 2000 noted that riverine communities experienced increased health risk due to the emergence of waterborne diseases such as malaria and cholera. In 2000 the government appointed a national coordinating mechanism chaired by the National Institute of Disaster Management (INGC), with flood committees established at provincial and district levels. The INGC worked with the United Nations, donors, NGOs, and religious organizations to evaluate the needs of affected communities and to provide disaster relief, including medical assistance and, in the longer-term, reconstruction of health facilities.

Adapting Infrastructure Mitigates Cyclone Impacts in the Philippines

Constructing storm-resistant infrastructure is one of the main actions that local communities take in preparation for cyclones. People build flood- and typhoon-resilient houses or reinforce their homes to make them more resilient. They build houses on stilts or use other methods of elevating the level of the first floor to prevent flooding, and they situate houses in areas where they will be protected from strong winds. They also construct seawalls, embankments, and other means of protection against flooding, especially for crops. Philippine communities use the well-known method of planting mangroves along the coastline to prevent erosion. They also plant trees above settlements, around farms, and along riverbanks and steep inclines to protect against floods and winds. Many communities use ditches and canals to divert rainwater and streams away from agricultural land to prevent the destruction of crops, and other structures are used for collecting rainwater.

Community Networks Collaborate to Discourage Forest Fires in Indonesia

Health in Harmony—or Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI), as it is called in Indonesia—works with communities affected by forest fires. In meetings between ASRI and different communities, community members explained their reliance on illegal logging and identified the drivers of this activity as lack of access to health care and economic alternatives. Highly intertwined initiatives in conservation, health care, and livelihood improvement measures were developed to help communities cope with the effects of deforestation and resulting forest fires. For example, the ASRI health clinics takes noncash payments such as native handicrafts, as well as seedlings and organic manure to be used for reforestation and sustainable farming. The clinic also has a green credit system in which villagers who do not participate in illegal logging receive discounts of up to 70 percent off of healthcare services.

Community-Driven Responses Strengthen Resilience

Community responses to build resilience are embedded within larger-scale national responses to climate change, which in turn are composed of national policies and programs, international treaties, and multilateral and multiorganizational projects. The case studies in the new Evidence Project paper illustrate why programming to strengthen community resilience in the face of adverse weather events should center around community networks and social capital and should support community-driven responses. They also show the need for better links between communities and national government responses.

Health is considered an important dimension of community resilience, but it does not figure prominently in the programming of the four case studies noted here. A greater awareness of health’s important role can help governments, NGOs, and donors to improve programming related to adverse weather events and intensify support for health, including reproductive health and family planning, as a mechanism to build community resilience.