Category Archives: Resilience

Rethinking resilience over email exchanges

Today I was browsing my email history, and came across this from a senior practitioner from India who asked me the academician’s take on IFRC definition of resilience, as the ability of individuals, communities, organisations, or countries exposed to disasters and crises and underlying vulnerabilities to – anticipate, – reduce impact of – cope with and – recover from the effects of adversity without compromising their long-term impacts.
I responded by saying:
There are two things that come to mind when we talk of resilience, and then many more nuances of the debates
open up. Firstly, some view resilience as ‘resistance’ where the idea is that any system or unit will retain its original characteristics when faced with shock so minimum or least damage is caused. like a rubber. This is from engineering or mechanics and physics school of thought. While an alternate thought is that a system will adapt n evolve and re organise when faced with disaster or any shock. this is ecological or geography perspective.
However in social systems, the resilience definitions understand that there is a capacity to adapt and recover from disasters and retain normal functioning. the concept of “bringing back to previous state of functioning ” or bounce back means that one recreates the conditions which led to disaster in first place, but still disaster provides with a window of opportunity to make a change- political conditions. practices. community capacities etc.
Finally resilience I have began to realise is very abstract. To operationalise, it’s challenging because everyone works as DRR or development or conflict resolution or humanitarian or clim change adaptation etc. to break through these barriers there is opportunity., but it also puts a value to certain conditions. for ex poverty has sustained for so long, so maybe poor and marginalised who live in poor conditions are still surviving because they have become resilient. Also if there are power imbalances then those who suffer inequality will have less support systems to adapt and become resilient.
Today I find value in above definitions, on concepts of recovery because resilience incorporates that factor of recovering from disasters. Therefore I think holistic recovery from disasters has more potential to build resilient communities as it loops back to the cycle of preparedness, mitigation and prevention of disasters
Any thoughts on this are welcome

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Reflections on Cyclone Phailin

This is a short summary of insights and inferences I have drawn upon from my experience in Oxfam India Cyclone Odisha response programme implemented in Puri, Ganjam and Balasore districts in 2013.

With the help of practical observations and direct implementation of the programme, I came across these challenges and reflections.


The critical nature of emergency response warrants for immediate short-term measures to save lives: some of the issues that crop up hence are related to targeting the most vulnerable vs. reaching out to entire communities. The impacts of such short-term decisions lie at the interface between the relief/emergency and longer-term recovery objectives of the communities. The experience was useful for me to learn how proposals were developed, how and what lessons from previous evaluations and experiences were incorporated, how consortium of different INGOs work together, how organizations retain (or do not) the experiences and learning of the consultants.


On resilience (in terms of preparedness) and how ensuring strict state protocol for early warning and evacuation system saved lives and important valuables. There were so many gaps and delays in govt response to the affected communities with relief items. Onslaught of secondary/multiple disaster such as cyclones and floods affecting different districts at the same time was very similar to what I observed in Assam as well – conflicts, repeated floods and erosion. The State machinery lags behind in responding to multiple challenges.


Few other lessons were: –

  1. Preparedness should not be the only yardstick to measure resilience. It saves lives definitely when disaster strikes, but resilience should also be determined by how communities actually recover and what are the gaps and how long it takes to recover completely. The unmet needs of communities – the most marginalized ones were livelihoods and shelter, which does not warrant adequate response from the govt whose primary mandate is relief-based. This is concurrent to what I observed even in Assam.
  2. Within each village, hamlet, district there are major groups of people who are left out – invisible groups, the most vulnerable (poor, socio – economically the lower strata)  – from the relief or rehabilitation intervention by government and even by NGOs; households who do not own the land, or fisherman who cannot afford to own boats, are left out from receiving benefits due to lack of papers to prove.
  3. This brings to mind the difference between what agencies such as Oxfam or others can do in events such as cyclones – do they respond to chronic issues of under-development or mal-development in most cases or to acute problems that arose due to the disasters.DSC01582

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Solmari: Another village lost

2013-10-16 15.57.54I said good-bye to my study village yesterday, and celebrated their festival Id with them. Gave my thanks for the time I spent there for the past two years and the support and motivation the people of Solmari gave me for my research. While unpacking resilience and recovery debates in Solmari I have discovered layers and linkages within me, and around me that were unknown to me all the while. I would like to share this particular story with all of you.

I first came to Solmari in July 2012, just when it was flooded due to the heavy rains that caused the breach in the embankment.  (Image – breached embankment). I am a photographer – researcher, so my memory and mind functions in the form of images. Lasting images that are etched in my mind are that of the run-down school and concrete community building that had borne the brunt of the breach. Few other images are of vast stretches of land filled with river water, shattered houses built under Indira Awaas Yojana, people stranded on the embankment and many others trying to salvage from the ruins. The impact of these images were so powerful in my mind, that I was motivated to return here to understand how the communities recovered post-floods.

As I had been remotely keeping an eye on how things developed here, I found news reports and Oxfam situation updates that there were consecutive waves of floods until October 2012, and people were forced to leave their villages and continue living in camps.

I visited Solmari twice this year in January and in August 2013. It was very evident, that the entire village-land was sand-casted and no agriculture was possible in this land. The repeated onslaught of floods indeed had prolonged the rebuilding of their lives and livelihoods. The urgent needs and concerns of the most vulnerable groups were met by Oxfam interventions. Resilience for them was construction of the new embankment for protection from floods, and raised platforms for shelter during floods. The Panchayat undertook construction of the new embankment, and two raised platforms. The quality and durability of these are questionable as the rains

Today I look back at Solmari, which stands nowhere, lying on the wrong-side of the new embankment, the entire community was forced to relocate without any support from the government. The crops and the tree-cover owned by few, lie exposed to the river, which is eroding the soil everyday. With a focused review of recovery processes in water, sanitation and hygiene practices, I found that it remains the primary challenge, besides land and livelihoods. But the question still remains – what makes Solmari resilient in the larger scheme of things? Without adequate support systems – either from government or non-government organizations, what will catalyze the recovery or redevelopment process?

And this is not the only Solmari in Assam, there were many other villages whose name none remember, that were washed away by Brahmaputra today – except for those to whom it belonged, there will be many more Solmaris this year and the next and in the future as well. I saw a similar pattern, and have heard about decades of erosion stories from my research in Morigaon as well? Where do we draw a line, or is it really ok if such unheard stories of villages gets lost in the relief-resilience-development conundrum?

How do recovery lessons from Assam applied elsewhere like in the case of recent Uttarakhand cloudburst or Cyclone Phailin?


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How does climate change literature fit into my research?

Often in my professional and academic work, I have stumbled upon articles and research papers, even books  (Mark Pelling Adaptation to Climate change: from resilience to transformation) which describe in detail the recent research on adaptation and mitigation efforts to counter climate change in the global environment. Reading one particular article while writing a book chapter on environment justice and resilience interfaces, I came across the work of Neil Adger from Tyndal University who writes and researches in climate change adaptation policy and action.
Although there are many global efforts stemming from economic and political standpoints (UNFCCC etc) at adapting to and mitigating the impacts of global environment change, Adger (2001) writes that efforts are often at the individual level, as spontaneous reactions to  changing circumstances to resource use or economic constraints or opportunities. How climate change affects all the various sectors that humanitarian action revolves around, and how intricately is climate change adaptation efforts centred around the global and sustainable development efforts are the major contentious debates which have left more questions unanswered than unravelling the mystique of these various silos.

From my perspective, and so from many others, resilience discourse and thinking, and attempts to operationalize resilience have directed their efforts to break down these silos of development, climate change adaptation, emergency and humanitarian action, conflict management and disaster risk reduction (Refer to ODI working papers by Katie Harris, Tome Mitchell, and Manyena et al, 2012 etc). Focussing on the community level actions and changes to understand recovery and resilience, I try to understand how impacts of climate change have variously altered lives at the community levels.

If anyone reading these has any ideas, thoughts or arguments, look forward to hearing from you.

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The Resilience Rhetoric

Two years into my doctoral research on disaster resilience, I am still struggling to come to terms and understand and comprehend in its entirety what resilience actually is and isn’t.

Synonymously used, or sometimes alternatively with disaster risk reduction, adaptation, coping capacity or adaptive capacity, recovery or sustainability, resilience seems to be a determining factor in many international policy discourse, humanitarian action and development discourse. Where are we headed to with a new vocabulary, or is it really something new? Often repackaging old ways of working and addressing problems with new terms and connotations provides a new perspective and challenges the old paradigms and processes, while falling short of any major transformations.

Will resilience thinking also hit a wall soon and become rehashed and reused in a new term? When used in operationalising, or policy action, or in academic circles there are agreeable nuances to the word, and many such disagreed notions of resilience. For example, by resilience do we mean returning to the previous state after a shock, or leading to a transformation? For some, resilience would mean ensuring some level of functioning if there is any shock or distress, while others draw parallels with fluctuations and redundancy.

Well then how will we ever reach an agreement on what resilience is and how it shapes our understanding and work? That is the million dollar question isn’t it then? When you translate it in simpler ways to share a mutual agreed and shared understanding of goals, objectives and aspirations with the common man who does not read academic texts and heavy-jargon newspaper articles but faces the outcomes of adhoc development and unnatural risks of naturally occurring disasters. We should learn from them, what resilience would actually mean to them? Now that will be a fruitful exercise, relevant to our work or not.


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How resilient is India?

The months of June/July for emergency practitioners is the month of immediate action, for media is fodder for news and of course for the people a season that begins with rains followed by floods. The administration is often seen claiming for making adequate preparation and having everything ready for the monsoons to arrive, but often these faulty claims are washed away with the first heavy showers and downpour. In major cities like Mumbai or Delhi, gaping holes in roads, heavy traffic blocks, overflowing sewages, overflooded railway tracks, washed-down settlements are common sights of the dismal preparations by the administration. While in other regions of India, where monsoon remains a season of dread and danger such as Assam or the northern hilly regions, heavy rains and recurring floods have become a regular phenomena, integral to their lives and preparedness to deal with it. No matter how much India has moved ahead in emergency planning and disaster management, the losses and damages, as well as deaths following such ‘natural’ disasters are not validating the claims of being a ‘disaster resilient nation and people’. Where are we lacking, where do we draw our lessons and how do we implement our ideas into policy and action? These issues are debated and discussed over national television, universities, closed -door meetings, agency workshops and coordination meetings, but how close has anyone come to see any action? at any level – national or state policy, local communities or responding agencies?

How often do our lessons get lost in the complexities and interplay of politics, economics and social and administrative factors? How often are our actions rendered minuscule in the larger goals and objectives of development of regions and masses beyond any differences?

The deaths of more than 1200 people in the flash floods in Uttarakhand, variously termed by politicians as the ‘Himalayan Tsunami’ may sound as a wake-up call to many, who may discuss and promise action, but soon ignore and overlook these underlying causes and we wait another impending disaster to happen. Transforming societies in the modern age, informed and agitated youth in various other countries have showed us the power that resides in collective action for a common cause, from the Arab spring revolutions to the recent Gezi protests in Turkey. But how often is any window of opportunity maximised for a policy change and transformation within societies, agencies or nations? India has a challenging role to play, being a leader in the South Asian region, and a functioning democracy and emerging economy in the global South, how does it treat its commons and the issues they suffer in their day-to-day lives?

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