Women, disasters, resilience and the future

By Jelenko Dragisic

The fifth anniversary of the 2011 Queensland floods has just passed and in couple of weeks we’ll have a chance for yet another reflection; the 10th anniversary of Cyclone Larry that took place in North Queensland in March 2006. To add some global perspective, we don’t need to travel far. 22 February marked the fifth anniversary of the Christchurch earthquakes which inflicted an economic loss to New Zealand of approximately $NZ40 billion. The cost of Queensland floods was estimated at over $10bn just in property and infrastructure damage. Additionally economic losses were over $30bn. The floods, combined with the effects of Cyclone Yasi, cost more than $4.bn Queensland’s GDP for 2010-11.

Some have pointed out that with that money we could have funded, not one but two, Snowy Mountain nation-building schemes. In general, natural disasters currently cost Australia $6billion per annum – a number that is expected to triple in 30 years’ time.

"Good for her. Great for us. When women achieve, Queensland succeeds." - The theme of the Queensland Women's Week 2016

“Good for her. Great for us.
When women achieve, Queensland succeeds.” – The theme of the Queensland Women’s Week 2016

There are many angles that can be examined when it comes to the effects of natural disasters. As we approach Queensland Women’s Week (7-11 March) and International Women’s Day (8 March), I would like to use this opportunity to focus on women and disasters. To begin with, it may be worth reflecting on a recent report by the UN Population Fund called Shelter from the Story. Among many vital points, the report states that disasters impact women and men differently. As a result, humanitarian responses are not effective as they should be.

Women do not fare well in disasters. Take a look at this statistic; during the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, up to four women died for every man in hard-hit Aceh, Indonesia. One contributing factor was the fact that women in Indonesia do not usually learn how to swim or climb trees. Another interesting and telling story about the effects of natural disasters on women is told through The Women’s Resilience Index (WRI). The WRI is a joint project by ActionAid, The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and the Australian Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade. It assesses a country’s capacity for risk reduction in disaster and recovery, and the extent to which women are considered in the national rebuilding efforts. The index points towards a major disparity between, say, Pakistan and Japan, which further elicits critical factors affecting women in some regions of the world.

But things can get even sadder. Consider this tweet by a businessman, “Let our daughters and sisters learn a lesson or two from such calamities. It is high time they stick to modest clothing and repent. Shamelessness will ruin us.” The tweet was in relation to a major flooding event in Kashmir a year ago. It reflected on a sentiment in some parts of the community which sees a negative link between natural disasters and women who dress in western style. As one local journalist reported “Women in particular have been made scapegoats, with some men commenting in the marketplaces as well as social networking sites on the “western dressing sense” of women which, according to them, has angered God.”

I could go on but the list is too long. However, when we consider all these findings we certainly cannot ignore the fact that there is room for better action, better policy and a major shift in the way we account for a resilient society. Perhaps this was best articulated by Philippines Senator Loren Legarda at the World Assembly for Women 2014 in Tokyo, convened by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, when she asserted that “Women have the ability to lead their communities towards resilience. In fact, there are many best practices led by women in many nations, including the Philippines.” Furthermore, some like the Pan-American Health Organisation (which acts as a regional WHO organisation) argue that women are better in mobilising communities to respond to disasters.

Resilience to major disruptions, including pervasive natural disasters, has already shaped up to be a key priority globally. Be it resilience in the workplace, city, community at large or a whole country, it is without any doubt clear that gender issues have to be better integrated into policy settings, together with investment in pragmatic programs. After all, an inclusive society is the mark of a resilient society. And that is where socio-economic prosperity starts.



On 11 March 2016, the Global Resilience Collaborative, in collaboration with the Queensland Government, is hosting a ‘free to the public’ event at Parliament House that focuses on women, disasters and resilience. To attend please register here: https://www.eventbrite.com.au/e/reimagining-resilience-women-in-disasters-tickets-21691718514


SO you are interested in resilience?

By Dr Peter Rogers

That’s good. So am I. In fact I’m so interested in it that I’ve spent a large part of the last decade travelling the world and exploring resilience in a range of different contexts. I feel safe in saying that I have learned a lot about resilience, what it can be, what it might be, what it could one day turn into, but I still have no definitive answer as to what resilience IS. How can that be? I would say because there are many different types of resilience. This may be the most important angle I have to share… the type of resilience you encounter in each place that you go to will always depend on the background and experiences of the people to whom you are talking and on the contextual specifics of where they live and work. How you encounter resilience determines its utility.

“That’s nice” you might say “but how does it help me right now?”

Stop for a minute then and think about how you have encountered the term resilience. Think about the place that you work, about where you live. Think about the type of goals that define the parameters of success or failure in the projects with which you are engaged. Those who work in sustainable development or environmental offices will have a different understanding of resilience to those who work in infrastructure development, land-use management, planning departments or equity and social justice. If one works aiding families in times of stress or helping vulnerable demographics amongst our citizenry get access to work, to health care or to other basic services, be it Bangalore or Newcastle upon Tyne you will probably see resilience differently to a member of the Rural Fire Service in Brisbane. Those working with young skateboarders in the city centre of a medium sized post-industrial town and those working to bring relief to war torn areas (foreign and domestic) are all working in different forms of resilience building. This makes it very hard to nail down one way of thinking or of using the concept.

Think bigger, think beyond the organisations that employ us. Think global resilience. When taking this one on it is sometimes useful to give the mind a workout. There is some logical gymnastics required to join the dots here. When thinking globally one must also think locally – I know I abhor the cliché but it fits so well, deal with it. To make resilience work the importance of the local context cannot be overstated. In a global melee to ‘own the idea’ or create what us academics call a ‘grand narrative’ it is too easy to lose sight of the local context within which a person is working. What being resilient means to the inhabitants of a Bangkok slum will be different to a Manhattan high rise, what resilience means to an emergency worker in Melbourne will be different to a local councillor in England. The challenges in each of these examples are rooted in the idiosyncrasy of time, of space, and of place. What does that mean? Well, it seems straightforward to think that London is different to Manilla, that Washington DC is different to Puerto Allegre, or Singapore distinct from Mumbai. Yet in a world of international standards, benchmarks and professional guidelines that inform how we work there is a constant tension, a push and pull, between understanding what works right here right now and negotiating the boundaries of how we are expected to work (and report back to our managers). Another element of tension comes from a perceived need to ‘scale up’ successful projects into a universal tool kit. The idea that one example can be turned into a one-shot fix for making everyone, everywhere, resilient in the same way is not helpful to anyone. What we are finding as we research resilience around the world is that it is not always easy to understand how different communities move through and use the different spaces of a given city at different times – be it time of day or time of year. Not all agencies are able to design comprehensive interventions or projects that pull the local culture, traditions, customs and knowledge of the general population together with the culture and way of working typical of governing bodies – ranging from ethnic tensions to organisational corruption to entrenched resistance to change or the use of rigid tools in the wrong context. Resilience thinking is used to design flexible practices that can be realigned and redesigned to fit the needs of any given context. Just think of the changing dynamics of pressures in Tokyo during cherry blossom season, or Sao Paulo during the World Cup. The lack of contextual understanding between the different organisations and interests before, during and after Hurricane Katrina or in the planning, design and management of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Such examples created cascading failures in systems felt around the world. Such examples show us how important local knowledge is to understanding the dangers one might, one day, face. The dynamics are thus spread over a wide range of possible stressors and shocks, so resilience activities need to be focussed on the right contextual details to be effective.

In such a world is no longer helpful to look for a universal definition of what resilience is, nor to seek that singular silver bullet that will allow us to fix the problem of a perceived lack of resilience amongst certain elements of the population. What many of us are now seeing develop is the beginning of the real challenge; how do we think differently about what is done under the banner of resilience. What is growing is a general acknowledgement, amongst experts and lay folk alike, that if we are to do this thing properly then different thinking is required. Thinking resiliently informs new opportunities for doing it differently in practice, for harnessing the lessons of the past, existing tools or expertise and using them in new ways. For identifying vulnerabilities and mobilising flexible workers in collaborative partnerships to facilitate creative solutions to wicked problems. Encouraging a different approach to anything ‘across the board’ is a big challenge, so in our own work we are aiming to encourage this in a number of ways. One of those is by building case studies of best practice and sharing an evidence-base with interested parties. The hope is that by stimulating ideas and discussion with high quality research findings we can show where the dividends from being resilient actually are; but more than that we are seeking to develop a collective of collaborative thinkers and practitioners who can steer the trajectory of resilience towards its more positive forms. Yes, despite my advocacy on this issue I also acknowledge that if those using the idea use it poorly then not all aspects of work done in the name of ‘building resilience’ are potentially good.

In future posts I hope to bring you more of our efforts to show the difference and ensure the better versions prevail by reporting on previous, current and future projects, undertaken both with the Global Resilience Collaborative and with other partners across our expanding network. In the next post I will look at urban resilience a little more, touching on the UN ‘Making Cities Resilient’ campaign and the Rockefeller Foundation ‘100 Resilient Cities’ programme.

Peter Rogers is a Senior Lecturer in the Sociology of Law at Macquarie University. He is the former Co-Director of Climate Futures research centre at Macquarie University and author of two books on urban resilience.

Reimaging Resilience: Women in Disasters: 11 March 2016, Parliament House, Brisbane

The Global Resilience Collaborative (GRC) has been successful in winning a small grant from the Queensland government to support its initiative, the “Reimagining Resilience” Speaker Series. This grant enabled us to organise a public event with a special focus on disaster resilience and the role of women.

Clem Campbell OAM President, United Nations Association Qld spoke at the launch of Reimagining Resilience program.

Clem Campbell OAM, President – United Nations Association Qld spoke at the launch of Reimagining Resilience program.

The event is a collaboration with United Nations Association of Australia (Queensland Division), PopUp Radio Australia and Volunteering Sunshine Coast and will take place on 11 March during Queensland Women’s Week 2016. This is an opportunity for Queenslanders to come together and celebrate the achievements of Queensland women and girls. The theme this year is Good for her. Great for us. More about the Queensland Women’s Week can be found at the official website


This event is free to public.  Registration is essential at this link (Eventbrite)


This GRC event is collaboration with the Queensland Government and the United Nations Association of Australia (Queensland Division).