Community Resiliency Supports Community Sustainability

By Gregory Sayles, Ph.D.

The three pillars of sustainability

Figure 1. The three pillars of sustainability

Whether it’s the residents of lower Manhattan recovering from flooding and power outages in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, entire municipalities evacuated from areas surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, or California’s farming communities adapting to long-term drought conditions, everyone’s talking about “resiliency”—what it takes to bounce back once a community has been impacted by a natural or human-made disaster.

Reducing environmental risks and restoring environmental services are essential components of resilience.

Last week, nearly five dozen scientists, program managers and community liaisons from across EPA gathered for a two-day workshop to parse through scientific and policy definitions of “resiliency” and examine the critical factors that support community resiliency. The group then brainstormed ways to create indicators and an index that communities might use to evaluate their vulnerabilities to disaster, their capacity to bounce back, and the resources they need to prepare for future disasters.

Our discussions taught us that resilience is built on many community functions and qualities, most of them interdependent.  Brian Pickard, of EPA’s Water Security Division highlighted how community drinking water systems are inter-connected to energy supplies and health delivery systems.  If a tornado, flood or hurricane knocks out electricity, drinking water pumping stations crash and critical care facilities such as hospitals need back-up supplies to continue operating.  Hospitals and emergency rooms must have access to emergency water supplies to manage the casualties and injuries that often result following a disaster.

Strengthening community resiliency means becoming better prepared for the next disaster.

How are resilience and sustainability inextricably related?  Sustainability strives to balance three pillars—economic, social, and environmental—in equilibrium (see figure 1).  Disaster disrupts that equilibrium, and with it the path toward sustainability. Resiliency is building in the capability to restore this balance following a disaster.

According to EPA sustainability researchers Alan Hecht and Joseph Fiksel, “sustainability is the capacity for: human health and well-being, economic vitality and prosperity, and environmental resource abundance” while, “resilience is the capacity to: overcome unexpected problems, adapt to change, and prepare for and survive catastrophes.”

Workshop participants agreed to continue developing a discrete set of indicators that can be used to measure community environmental resiliency and present them at a follow-up workshop in July. Our long-term goal is to deliver a Community Environmental Resilience Index to communities, EPA, and other federal partners. The index will help local and national stakeholders assess and improve resiliency and guide planning for disasters.

EPA’s homeland security research program is excited to be working with partners from across the Agency to help communities understand and shape their own resilience.

About the Author: Gregory Sayles, Ph.D. is the Acting Director of EPA’s Homeland Security research program.


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