Resilience Reflections #6: Drivers of disasters and questions of a resilience researcher

Recognizing the urgent need to respond to rapid societal and environmental change, resilience is one of the University of Twente’s spearheads. As an academic institution, we have a role to play in strengthening the resilience of the social, technological and environmental systems that support us. In this weekly series, UT researchers share their personal reflections on current events and trends that impact our daily lives, exploring their implications for resilience. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own. In this issue,  Baran Ulak  reflects on the importance of considering multiple social and environmental factors in resilience science.

Six months ago, in the early days of February, I was sitting in the breakfast lounge of the hotel where I was staying in Venice for a short vacation with my spouse when we got the news of the terrible earthquake in Turkey. Coming from Turkey, we both were deeply affected by the news reflecting the sheer scale of the disaster and actually, it was just the tip of the iceberg. In the following days, we were strolling the streets and famous canals of Venice with our thoughts darkened by the unravelling consequences of the earthquake. The question that bothered us was "What can we do?" and the accompanying feeling was "Nothing really... ." Then, other questions surfaced. What could be done to stop a natural event from turning into an immense disaster with excruciating human suffering? Why did this happen?

Reflecting on societal causes of disasters

As a researcher who has been working on "resilience" and a civil engineer who studied the resistance of structures to earthquakes, these questions took a personal toll. I felt like I had not done my work well enough, although I know that the responsibility does not lie with one individual but collectively with the whole political system and society. Yes, it was one of the biggest and rarest earthquake events in human history: A major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 according to the U.S. Geological Survey was followed by a magnitude 7.5 aftershock just nine hours later. So, was the disaster inevitable? The answer is no, it was evitable. A recent Nature article (Hussain et al. 2023) [1] demonstrates that the disaster was a consequence of a combination of exposure, poverty, and corruption. Then, the question arises: Can we really address exposure, poverty, and corruption with resilience science?

I would like to take you to another place, a lovely island in Greece in the Aegean Sea: Rhodes. The summer of 2023 witnessed the horrifying wildfires engulfing the central part of the Rhodes [2] killing several people and displacing tens of thousands. Wildfires will probably change the Mediterranean way of life forever [3] . Wildfires in the Mediterranean are not a rare event. They happen every year. However, they have been increasingly devastating with climate change and intensifying human activity. Furthermore, wildfires all over the world, in California, Canada, and Australia, are becoming more widespread and frequent and the consequences are even more dreadful than ever. Deforestation, increasing global temperatures, and extreme droughts are fueling the wildfires. It is clear that we need to work on resilience to wildfires to protect communities all over the world. Then, the question arises: Can we really slow down climate change and fossil fuel dependence leading to the increase in wildfires using resilience science?

Plea for an integrated approach

I am asking these questions because, as a resilience scientist, I feel despair in the face of the mounting problems all over the world, all of which are related to the concept of resilience. And I think I am not alone in the resilience community. What can we really do as resilience scientists and as a resilience community? The most logical and feasible response to this question is to continue doing what we have done so far: research. But I also think that the problems we, as humanity, face compel us to adopt a far more integrated approach to resilience science (Logan et al. 2022) [4] .

What I am trying to say is that "resilience" is a buzzword and there are too many descriptions of what "resilience" encompasses, such as engineering resilience, social resilience, governance resilience... Perhaps such descriptions are inevitable given the wide range of researchers from different backgrounds working on the topic. I was recently discussing resilience assessment with a colleague and I noticed that when I mentioned the people affected by a disaster, he said that we should not go in that direction because it would complicate the research. Then, this conversation made me think: What is resilience without considering people, physical systems, or political systems, or governance, or corruption, or climate change? We can increase the "or’s" but the point is that we need a more integrated approach to resilience. I do not exactly know  "where" and "how" to start, but perhaps this article can help illustrate its importance in dealing more effectively with resilience to hazards like the devasting earthquakes and wildfires all over the world.

[1] Hussain E., Kalaycioglu S., Milliner C.W., Çakir Z. (2023). Preconditioning the 2023 Kahramanmaras (Türkiye) earthquake disaster. Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, 4, 287’289 .
[3] https://www.washingtonp­­rld/2023/0­9/02/greec­e-fires-20­23-rhodes/
[4] Logan T., Aven T., Guikema S., Flage R. (2022). Risk science offers an integrated approach to resilience. Nature Sustainability, 5, 741’748 .

Baran Ulak  is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Engineering Technology (ET) at the University of Twente. 

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