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date: 23 April 2019

Risk and Resilience in the Management and Governance of Natural Hazards

Summary and Keywords

The management of natural hazards is undergoing considerable transformation, including the establishment of risk-based management approaches, the encouragement to govern natural hazards more inclusively, and the rising relevance of the concept of resilience. The benefits of this transformation are usually framed like this: Risk-based approaches are regarded as a rational way of balancing the costs associated with mitigating the consequences of hazards and the anticipated benefits; inclusive modes of governing risks help to increase the acceptance and quality of management processes as well as their outcomes; and the concept of resilience is connoted positively since it demands a greater openness to uncertainties and aims at increasing the capacities of various actors to cope with radical surprises.

However, the increasing consideration of both concepts in policy and decision-making processes is associated with a changing demarcation between public and private responsibilities and with an altering relationship between organizations involved in the management process and the wider public. To understand some of these dynamics, this contribution undertakes a change of perspective throughout its development: Instead of asking how the concepts of risk or resilience might be useful to improve the management and governance of natural hazards, one must understand how societies, particularly with regard to their handling of risks and hazards, are governed through the concepts of risk and resilience.

Following this perspective, risk-based management approaches have a defensive function in deflecting blame and rationalizing policy choices ex-ante by enabling managing organizations to more clearly define which risks they are responsible for (i.e., non-acceptable risks) and which are beyond their responsibility (i.e., acceptable risks). This demarcation also has profound distributional effects as acceptable risks usually need to be mitigated individually, raising the question of how to ensure the just sharing of the differently distributed benefits and burdens of risk-based approaches.

The concept of resilience in this context plays a paradoxical yet complementary role: In its more operational interpretation (e.g., adaptive management), resilience-based management approaches can be in conflict with risk-based approaches as they require those responsible for managing risks to follow antagonistic goals. While the idea of resilience puts an emphasis on openness and flexibility, risk-based approaches try to ensure proportionality by transforming uncertainties into calculable risks. At the same time, resilience-based governance approaches, with their emphasis on self-organization and learning, complement risk-based approaches in the sense that actors or communities that are exposed to “acceptable risks” are implicitly or explicitly made responsible for maintaining their own resilience, whereas the role of public authorities is usually restricted to an enabling one.

Keywords: risk-based management, resilience, blame, reputational risk, accountability, risk governance, responsibility, justice, adaptive management


For a long time hazard-based and protection-oriented approaches prevailed in attempts to protect people, infrastructure, and buildings from the negative consequences of natural hazards. The emphasis was on reducing the probability of an event by focusing on the underlying physical processes. In flood management, for instance, the aim was to better understand and assess the statistical return periods of flood events in order to protect flood-exposed settlements with so-called structural measures (for more details, see Merz, 2017). Therefore flood managers focused on defining a design flood event, that is a flood event with a certain statistical return period, and on measures that aim to reduce the likelihood of that event occurring (e.g., through the construction of a retention basin) or on measures that would protect exposed people from all flood events below the respective design standard (e.g., through the construction of levee). Flood events that exceeded the established protection standard were usually of no interest and were considered as residual—more or less neglectable.

However, this approach is increasingly regarded as outdated and has undergone considerable transformation—including the establishment of risk-based management approaches, the encouragement to include a wider range of stakeholders in the management processes, and the increasing acknowledgement of inherent and irreducible uncertainties—accompanied by a turn toward considering the concept of resilience in the management and governance of natural hazards.

A risk-based approach is usually understood as a rational decision-making tool that allows a way to balance the costs associated with mitigating the consequences of hazards and the anticipated benefits (i.e., the avoided costs of damage) and thus helps to identify the optimal balance between non-acceptable levels of risk and the costs of reducing them. Resilience-based approaches emphasize the contingent openness of social and natural processes by appreciating the unpredictability and non-linearity of future developments. They encourage a greater openness to uncertainties, including the experience of radical surprises, and they aim to increase the capacities of various actors to cope with such surprises.

Yet, underneath the surface of recent discussions highlighting the positive aspects of risk and resilience-based management approaches, a subtle transition in the wider governance context is taking place and is increasingly reflected in social sciences. The demarcation between public and private responsibilities is changing as well as the relation between organizations responsible for the management of natural hazards and the wider public. To understand these changes, this article focuses, in its second part, on the institutions and organizations responsible for or somehow involved in managing risk resulting from natural hazards and how they define what a risk is or what resilience means to them. The argument pursued takes a broadly constructivist stance in the sense that the management of natural hazards depends mostly on some kind of process of framing, defining, and representing risks to make them the “purpose of action and intervention” (Power, 2009, p. 4).

The empirical examples presented here are intended to be general and applicable to the management of different natural hazards in different countries across the world. However, the analysis has an obvious bias toward flood risk management in the United Kingdom specifically and to Europe more generally. The reasons are grounded in the empirical research of the author as well as in the specific institutional governance context of the United Kingdom defined by a thorough incorporation of risk and resilience in the management of natural hazards.

Risk and Resilience as a Means to Improve the Management of Natural Hazards

The origins of research on natural hazards, at least in geography, date back to the 1940s. In 1942, Gilbert F. White submitted his groundbreaking dissertational thesis on flood hazards and flood plain management to the University of Chicago (White, 1945). Standing in the tradition of Barrow’s human ecology (1923) as well as Dewey’s pragmatism (Wescoat, 1992), White developed a research program that became known as the “hazard research paradigm” (Kates, 1994; White, 1974). Hazards were not simply understood as the negative outcomes of humans’ interaction with their natural environment; the focus of hazard research was rather on both “the beneficial as well as the adverse effect of natural variations” (White, Kates, & Burton, 2001, p. 84). White and his colleagues considered human decisions and how hazards are perceived by members of the public and by decision and policy makers as highly relevant to explaining the occurrence of hazards as well as to how individuals or entire societies would choose to adapt to their consequences. In their opinion, the configuration of adjustments is, above all, a function of people’s decisions as well as of their perceptions (Kates & Burton, 1986).

The relevance of the decision-making process was treated only marginally in the emerging research field of vulnerability research. During the 1970s, a group of researchers became increasingly dissatisfied with how hazard research was being conducted (Waddell, 1977; Watts, 1983) and started to criticize the “prevailing scientific view” (Hewitt, 1983a, p. 3). In “Taking the Naturalness out of Natural Disasters” (O’Keefe, Westgate, & Wisner, 1976), vulnerability researchers rather aimed at unraveling the socio-economical-political root causes of the occurrence of disasters (Blaikie, Cannon, Davis, & Wisner, 1994; Hewitt, 1983b; Watts & Bohle, 1993) by arguing that many people do not have the means to cope with and adapt to potential threads and are therefore defenseless and vulnerable (Chambers, 1989; Krüger & Macamo, 2003). Importantly, vulnerable people do not decide freely to be vulnerable (e.g., dwell in highly exposed areas), they often become vulnerable through external forces:

even when risks are perceived and experienced, some elements of a society still may not be in a position to take the necessary steps to mitigate or prevent the occurrence of a disaster. Such a situation is the essence of vulnerability.

(Oliver-Smith, 2002, p. 42)

In this sense, the concept of vulnerability, at least in the interpretation outlined above, is quite different to the notion of risk: Seeing the consequence of a flood as a result of some unalterable socio-political-economic structures delegates the root causes for their occurrence to extra-individual forces. In such a framing, it is rather misleading to speak of risk, at least if one uses the term in its original meaning.

Risk-Based Management of Natural Hazards and the Idea of Controllability

To speak of risk implies the “the distinction between reality and possibility” (Renn, 1998, p. 50). This is reflected in the origin of the term risk, which, according to Bonß, dates back to the 12th and 13th century when the word started to spread in Italian cities, predominantly in the context of long-distance and maritime trading (Bonß, 1995, p. 35 ff.). The introduction of the term signifies a far reaching cognitive-cultural transition as traders started to attribute the success of their trading journeys increasingly to their own decisions and actions and no longer to some extra-human factors, like cosmological order or fate (Luhmann, 2006).

More explicit formulation of the concept started to spread during 17th century Europe, when probability theory was developed and early forms of modern risk assessments, such as LaPlace’s analysis of the probability of death with and without smallpox vaccination, were undertaken (Dake, 1992). At this time, the framing of risk was quite distinct from its contemporary understanding, as it was defined as a product of probability of an event as well as its anticipated losses and gains. Particularly during the 19th century, the Western idea of the ability of humans to control nature “had acquired such cultural prominence that technological applications were widely celebrated and theories of risk became justifications for the profits of the successful entrepreneur” (Dake, 1992, p. 22).

Frank Kinght’s well-known differentiation between uncertainty and risk still reflects this understanding. When a decision is taken in a context where the outcome of that decision can be soundly anticipated, and when probabilities and positive and negative consequences are more or less known, Knight refers to risk. If the context is not very well understood or is completely unknown, and if probabilities and consequences cannot easily be anticipated, then Knight refers to uncertainty. In an entrepreneurial sense, such uncertainties are quite beneficial, as the absence of reliable information (also for potential competitors) increases the odds considerably (Knight, 1921).

However, the contemporary framing of risks in natural hazard research, and in engineering and insurance sciences more generally, is quite different, as risks are most of the time understood as something negative (Dake, 1992). Risk-based management considers not just statistical return rates but also includes the wider negative consequences of an event. More specifically, risk-based approaches consider probabilities as well as economic, ecological, social, or cultural consequences as potential hazards for a specific area, its residents, infrastructures, organizations, and ecosystems. To prevent or mitigate the damages, risk-based approaches include a broader spectrum of measures, such as spatial planning and zoning, insurance schemes, warning systems, the construction of hazard-resistant building or risk communication and awareness raising campaigns, aimed at reducing exposure and vulnerability.

The integrative perspective is pursued to identify at-risk areas, find ways to reduce risks, and to identify levels of appropriate protection in terms of a reasonable cost-benefit ratio, whereas the management process is usually based on the steps of analyzing, evaluating, and reducing risks (Merz, 2017; Merz & Emmermann, 2006), ideally followed by appropriate review and controlling mechanisms. The key idea of risk-based approaches is to no longer provide “absolute protection” for all kinds of possible hazard scenarios irrespective of the costs; rather, the aim is to identify a way of balancing the costs associated with mitigating the consequences of hazards and the anticipated benefits, that is, the avoided costs due to a damage. In this sense, rather than trying to eliminate all potential harms, the optimal balance between acceptable levels of risk and the costs of reducing them further shall be identified.

The benefits of risk-based management approaches are usually framed similarly: they represent a transparent and rational way of decision and policy making that enables responsible organizations to allocate scare public financial resources more effectively and efficiently. The UK Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), for instance, highlights risk-based management as a decision-making tool that would ensure that “the maximum benefit is achieved with every £1 of taxpayers’ money, and that we can be confident that the money could not be better spent elsewhere” (DEFRA, 2009, p. 3). Therefore government policy requires cost-benefit analysis of publicly funded natural hazards management schemes to ensure that public money is spent proportionally. These strategic-level policy-making requirements are designed to ensure that operational-level decisions “are oriented to gaining the maximum economic benefit for the country as a whole” (DEFRA, 2009, p. 12). In this understanding, risk-based management of natural hazards is interested in identifying the optimal allocation of scarce resources. The aim is to make “the most” out of a given endowment of resources, whereas this perspective typically avoids focusing on individual shares and puts more attention on the overall outcome for all (Gawel & Kuhlicke, 2017).

Governing the Risk From Natural Hazards Inclusively

The establishment of risk-based approaches is often associated with an enormous diversification and decentralization of actors involved in the management process (Walker, Tweed, & Whittle, 2014). To organize and structure the different actors with a stake in the process, the normative idea of risk governance and its emphasis on communication and participation has gained attention in recent years (Alexander, Priest, & Mees, 2016; Benn, Dunphy, & Martin, 2009; De Marchi, 2003; De Marchi & Ravetz, 1999; OECD, 2010; Renn, 2008).

A more inclusive mode of governing risks aims to replace the linear management models that assume better science automatically translates into good and sound policy-processes, by highlighting that all actors, be they from science, politics, civil society, or the financial sector, play a central role in the governance of risk both during the assessment and the management phase. As an example, in Renn’s risk governance model (2008), the traditional management steps (analysis, evaluation, and management) are still valid, but the notion of risk communication is positioned more prominently at the heart of the entire framework, ensuring the exchange and flow of information between the single evaluation steps and the various actors involved.

The justification for pursuing a more inclusive approach is grounded to a certain extent in insights from risk perception studies. These revealed, in dozens of empirical studies, that there is a difference in how so-called experts and lay people evaluate risks (Fischhoff, Slovic, & Lichtenstein, 1979; Fischoff, Slovic, Lichtenstein, Read, & Combs, 1978; Slovic, 1987). For a long time engineers and other “experts by certificate” (Collins & Evans, 2002) were convinced about the non-vulnerable safety standards of technological innovations, such as nuclear power, and believed that the public would also understand the benefits of such innovations. However, by framing the issue at stake as a knowledge deficit on the part of the public that would be overcome if the public was informed properly and better educated (Demeritt & Nobert, 2014), experts were unable to understand or overcome strong public resistance.

The insights of risk perception studies revealed that public resistance was quite rational in the sense that experts tend to focus more on the probability of risk, whereas lay people would rather focus on the anticipated consequences and qualitative risk characteristics such as uncertainty, dread, catastrophic potential, and controllability (Slovic, 1987). Also, catastrophic events like the nuclear incidents at Three Mile Island in the United States in the late 1970s, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima in 2011 have played a vital role in speeding up a turn toward more inclusive organizing management processes (see also Power, 2009). By pursuing such an approach, it is hoped that the acceptance for risk-related policies and decisions would increase and mutual trust would be enhanced as management processes become more transparent and more responsive to the concerns and expectations of stakeholders (Hood & Rothstein, 2001).

In addition, there are substantive reasons for establishing a more inclusive approach during the assessment and management process (Stirling, 2008), an insight also reflected in a trend toward including “local knowledge” in the decision-making process (Allen, Fontaine, Pope, & Garmestani, 2011; Allen, 2006; Berkes, 2009; Corburn, 2003). For a long time, the scientific community (except for ethnographers and anthropologists, perhaps) as well as many agencies involved in disaster risk management perceived knowledge that was not certified by some kind of official expertise (Collins & Evans, 2002) as inefficient, inferior, and an obstacle to the decision-making processes (Thrupp, 1989; Wynne, 1996). Only recently has there been a shift, and local stocks of knowledge are perceived as a valuable resource to improve the quality of risk management processes (Lane, Odoni, Landström, Whatmore, Ward, & Bradley, 2011).

In this sense, the aspiration is that a more inclusive approach to governing risk can improve both the process of managing risks and its outcomes. This is also reflected in various international policy frameworks (see also Begg, Callsen, Kuhlicke, & Kelman, 2017). At the international level, Agenda 21 of the 1992 Rio Conference on Environment and Development states that “[e]nvironmental issues are best handled with participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level” (UNDP, 1992, Principle 10). At the European level, various policy documents exist that highlight the relevance of participation. Regarding the management of flood risks, for instance, the European Directive on the assessment and management of flood risk (Floods Directive 2007/60/EC) requires an open access to hazard and risk-related information (e.g., hazard and risk maps), and it implies an inclusive approach to the management process as stakeholder participation is encouraged for developing flood risk management plans (2007/60/EC Article 10). However, the inclusiveness of the decision-making processes is defined quite differently among member states in Europe (Begg et al., 2017; Newig, Challies, Jager, & Kochskämper, 2014).

Resilience—the New Holy Grail of Disaster Risk Management

Another concept gaining increasing prominence in natural hazard research and policy making is resilience. The reasons for the rise of resilience both in science and policy are manifold. Generally, there is a greater sense of contingent openness of social and natural processes and their unpredictability and non-linearity (Urry, 2003, 2005, 2006). Flood risk assessments, for instance, have traditionally been calculated based on historically observed flood frequency statistics and return periods (Merz & Thieken, 2005), following what might be termed a classical approach to risk analysis. While uncertainties are acknowledged in this approach, catastrophic events show again and again, that data on probabilities and consequences are approximate at best. Furthermore, in the face of climate change, the past is no longer considered as a reliable guide to the future, and the assessment of hydro-meteorological natural hazards can no longer be based on the classic assumption of stationarity (Milly et al., 2008).

Alexander’s etymological journey about resilience (2013) reveals that the word went back to the Latin resilire, resilio (Manyena, O’Brien, O’Keefe, & Rose, 2011), then passed into Middle French (résiler), and came across the Channel into England during the 16th century as the verb resile. According to Alexander, the word looks back on a “long history of multiple, interconnected meanings in art, literature, law, science and engineering. Some of the uses invoked a positive outcome or state of being, while others invoked a negative one. In synthesis, before the 20th century, the core meaning was ‘to bounce back’” (Alexander, 2013, p. 2710). This is important to keep in mind, since the idea of “bouncing-back” so strongly associated with the notion of resilience, was modified by Holling in his influential publication (1973) “Resilience and the Stability of Ecological Systems.” When Holling (1973) introduced the term resilience to ecology science in his seminal article, he proposed to more clearly distinguish resilience from stability. While the idea of stability would favor the idea of bouncing back to a state of equilibrium after a disturbance, resilience would be a much more appropriate concept to understand and to manage the dynamics of ecosystems, since such systems are defined by multiple states of stability (Holling, 1978). Holling attempted to integrate three different stability properties under the unifying umbrella term “resilience”; that is, recovery (return to status quo after disturbance), resistance (buffering the impact of a disturbance), and persistence (staying intact as an identifiable object/subject over time) (see also: Grimm & Wissel, 1997).

Similarly, the political scientist, Wildavsky introduced the concept of resilience in his analysis, “Searching for Safety” (1988) as an alternative way of managing risks. While the dominant mode of managing risks presumes to be able to predict and prevent potential dangers before they occur, resilience-based management strategies try to prepare for and manage the consequences of unexpected events while they occur. Park, Seager, Rao, Convertino, and Linkov (2013) advertised the idea of resilience to engineering sciences to complement risk-based approaches as resilience analysis would focus on the behaviors and “emergent properties” of a system rather than on a “static property system” (Park et al., 2013, p. 356). In natural hazards research, resilience was introduced as an alternative by framing it as the “flip-side” of vulnerability (Adger, Hughes, Folke, Carpenter, & Rockström, 2005). At the same time, there are authors who argue that the relationship between vulnerability and resilience is not linear and that they are not in opposition to each other (Weichselgartner & Kelman, 2014).

One of the earliest contestation with the idea of resilience in natural hazard research goes back to Timmerman (1981). He stated that everyone is vulnerable, yet not everyone is resilient. Resilience should be understood as being the result of past vulnerabilities that one managed to overcome. In this sense, resilience is mostly associated with the process of learning from past experiences and preparing for future events (Timmerman, 1986). Subsequent engagements with the idea of resilience focused on outlining factors that would contribute to a resilient and sustainable development of communities (Tobin, 1999) or to the development of transformative but still-resilience-based strategies that are able to “operate in the face of pervasive risk and uncertainty” (Handmer & Dovers, 1996, p. 482; see also Sakdapolrak & Etzold, 2016).

Not surprising, the “language of resilience” (Jacobs & Malpas, 2017), with its positive connotations, entered various policy-relevant documents, above all in disaster and emergency management in the Anglophone world (Weichselgartner & Kelman, 2014; Welsh, 2014). The 4th Annual UK Resilience Conference, for instance, which took place in 2016, was advertised by addressing policy and decision makers with the statement that “[t]he UK must respond to an increasing number of incidents placing the nation’s resilience under pressure. With events of terror in Paris and beyond, severe flooding in Cumbria [. . .], this year has been the biggest test to date and recovery efforts are ongoing.”1 In the review of the UK floods in 2007, which led to quite fundamental transformations of the flood risk management approach in the United Kingdom, Sir Michael Pitt defined resilience as: “The ability of a system or organization to withstand and recover from adversity” (quoted in Cabinet Office, 2011, p. 10). On a more operational level, the idea of resilience is prominent. The Planning Policy Statement 25 in the United Kingdom states that resilient buildings are constructed in a way such that the impact of a hazard is reduced, the overall structural shape is maintained despite the impact of a hazard, and the reparation phase is shortened and can be organized more efficiently compared to non-resilient building (Department for Communities and Local Affairs, 2009). At a communal level, so-called resilience forums in the United Kingdom were established to increase the capacity of local communities to cope with various emergencies (Adey & Anderson, 2012; Welsh, 2014).

Resilience-based management strategies are usually regarded as positive, as they encourage policy makers and stakeholders to not just cooperate and exchange, but also to be more open to uncertainties associated with future development, and thus to install systematically modes of learning, revisions, and adaptation. These strategies help to overcome more established ways of managing natural hazards and shift attention from protection and disaster recovery toward prevention, adaptation, and preparedness, and they aim to increase the capacity of individuals and communities to come to terms with future contingencies (Cote & Nightingale, 2012; Klein, Nicholls, & Thomalla, 2003; Lorenz, 2013).

For some, such a capacity-developing orientation is necessary (see also: Kuhlicke et al., 2011), as the division of responsibility between the public and the state has been out of balance as citizens have tended to delegated responsibility to experts and trust the capacities of those experts to manage and mitigate risks (Giddens, 1990). As a consequence, individuals have neglected and eventually forgotten their own skills and capacities (Clausen, 1983). Therefore, making individuals more responsible is seen as a way to work with and encourage citizens to rediscover and redevelop their forgotten capacities and skills to increase their resilience (Box, Thomalla, & van den Honert, 2013; Lorenz, 2013). Not surprising, in recent years, various studies have been published emphasizing how resilience helps to improve disaster risk management (for an overview see: Berkes, 2007; Davoudi et al., 2012; de Bruijne, Boin, & Eeten, 2010; Weichselgartner & Kelman, 2014).

At the same time there are also critical voices emerging, expressing their concerns about the wider socio-political implications of managing natural hazards by the concept of resilience.

Governing Societies by Risk and Resilience

From focusing on normative concerns with how policymaking ought to be done and how it can benefit from a more inclusive risk and resilience-based management approach, attention now turns to a more descriptive and explanatory stand, concentrating on how risk and resilience shape current practices of managing and governing natural hazards. The meaning of the term governance changes. It no longer refers to the normative idea of good governance, underlying the risk governance model of Renn (2008), for instance, but rather points toward a more descriptive understanding, in the sense that current governance settings are defined by multi-level decisions and policy-making processes that involve a diverse set of actors from the private and public sphere and that are shaped by newly emerging forms of authority and control as well as shifting lines of responsibilities (Kuhlicke et al., 2011; Walker et al., 2014).

Although the consequences of these broad transformations are manifold and can hardly be summarized here—as their extent and significance is highly differentiated across member states of the EU and even more on the global level—this section starts to explore how risk and resilience shape the management and governance of natural hazards. It undertakes a transition from asking how the concepts of risk and resilience are helpful to improving the management of natural hazards, to exploring how societies are governed in the context of natural hazards management by the concepts of risk and resilience (Rothstein, 2006). Risk is no longer simply understood as an objective to be managed, and resilience is not just a promising idea on how to improve the management process; both concepts are understood as organizing principles by which public policies are aimed toward the management of hazards, and the relationship between public and private actors shape the relationship between public and private actors in the field of natural hazard management (Adey & Anderson, 2012; Rothstein, 2006; Rothstein, Huber, & Gaskell, 2006; Welsh, 2014).

The argument focuses particularly on the relationship between risk and resilience. While being aware that the contours of this interaction are still in the making, the following arguments present first ideas and are explorative in their character. More specifically, risk and resilience are a “strained couple” as they are based on quite antagonistic framings of the future—at the same time they can also have a complementary relationship.

Risk and Resilience: A Strained Couple

Risk and resilience-based management approaches are defined by a quite profound difference: their diverging appreciation of uncertainties about the future translate into quite distinct policy procedures and pull those responsible for managing risks in different directions. To better understand some of the challenges associated with this tension, this section focuses on the emergence of secondary institutional risks and how they are further amplified by management approaches that are based on the ideas of risk and resilience.

Risk, Controllability, and Reputation

Risk-based management approaches usually attribute probabilities and consequences to the possible occurrence of future events. At least from an institutional perspective, the reliability of this knowledge is, in many cases, of secondary importance as responsible organizations quite often need to engage with risks that are defined by profound uncertainties. However, although uncertainties are profound, they are still treated within a risk-based management approach:

Knightian uncertainties become risks when they enter into management systems for their identification, assessment, and mitigation. The distinction between uncertainty and risk [. . .] is in essence an institutional and managerial distinction between those events and issues which are expected to be treated within management systems as “risks” and those which are not. Uncertainty is therefore transformed into risk when it becomes an object of management, regardless of the extent of information about probability. [. . .]. When uncertainty is organized it becomes a “risk” to be managed.

(Power, 2009, p. 6)

Treating uncertain and possibly unknown future developments within a risk-based management framework can have quite far reaching consequences. Establishing protection measures, safety technologies, or insurance schemes is not just about the reduction of probabilities or the mitigation of consequences; it is also profoundly associated with the idea of malleability and manageability and, in the final sense, with the idea of being able to domesticate such risks (Evers & Nowotny, 1987).

Evers and Nowotny argue that (natural) hazards should not simply be equated with the term risk; they only become a risk if an actor (an organization or a person) claims to be able to manage such hazards (1987). To frame something as a risk presupposes a decision to pay attention to this risk, to undertake actions to minimize its potential impacts, and to provide certain safety standards. If governmental actors, for instance, define certain risks as non-acceptable and take steps to reduce their likelihood or mitigate their consequences, they not only distinguish such risks from acceptable risks, they also provide a certain level of safety that members of the public can expect to rely on.

Risk and safety are not simply in opposition to each other; they are mutually intertwined. If there is no one claiming to be able to provide safety, there are no risks. As an implication, Evers and Nowotny also understand Beck’s often cited label of an emerging “risk society” as misleading (Beck, 1986). Beck’s risks are no risks in their understanding: technologies such as nuclear power, genetically modified organisms, or other environmental and climatic hazards are perceived as dreadful because they exactly elude from immediate controllability or challenge established mechanisms aimed at minimizing their consequences. Only by framing a process or an event (e.g., a possibly crumbling earth crust, a drought, or a flood) as a risk, a whole web of expectations about the ability of responsible actors to control, mitigate, or prevent such risks is evoked (Power, 2009).

The establishment of such a web of expectations, however, is associated with a by-product: responsible organizations always face the risk of not meeting or even disappointing expectations about the manageability of risks (Hood & Rothstein, 2001; Rothstein, 2006; Rothstein et al., 2006). Apparently, not meeting such expectations can become a problem for responsible organizations and can generate, more abstractly, a new category of secondary institutional, or reputational risks, such as being held to account and being blamed in wider institutional context if something goes wrong (Rothstein et al., 2006; Power, 2009). According to Rothstein, such institutional risks are a central characteristic of most risk-related regulation and management processes:

Such institutional risks are an inherent feature of regulation, in so far as they arise from the inevitable complexities, conflicts, and puzzles of regulatory activity, which can lead to divergence between expectations and practices. For example, inherent uncertainties, competing priorities, legal and institutional constraints, diversely governable actors, and the conflicting demands of stakeholders all could give rise to institutional risks.

(Rothstein et al., 2006, p. 1057)

Secondary risks have implications for the management of natural hazards, as organizations are increasingly engaged with managing these second order risks, potentially at the cost of the management of first order risks (e.g., a flood risk) (Rothstein et al., 2006). It can become more important for an organization to understand how they are perceived by the extra-organizational environment and manage the possible institutional risks related to this perception than to engage with risks they are responsible for to be managed (Kuhlicke, Callsen, & Begg, 2016). As an implication, stakeholder interaction is quite “risky” (and is surely not just “beneficial”). Stakeholders can challenge managing organizations and question procedures and outcomes and can thus become a “managerial ‘dread factor’ and an explicitly recognized source of risk” (Power, 2009, p. 137).

Apparently, organizations involved in disaster risk management, have always faced the risk of being blamed and have therefore developed various strategies to manage blame attacks (Hood, 2002). They may try to obscure or individualize possibly erroneous conduct, invest considerable financial resources in compensating victims, shift blame to uncontrollable divine or natural forces, or simply frame a disastrous event as an unfortunate and unforeseeable accidents. However, within a risk-based management framework, organizations increasingly manage such secondary risks ex-ante; this is highlighted in a case study on future flooding in England (Kuhlicke & Demeritt, 2016). Policy makers as well as operation staff are not only highly aware of reputational risks, they also rely on risk-based policy instruments as a means of reinforcing institutional strategies that aim to deflect blame for failure by pre-empting possible critics through standardization and consistency of approaches, a strategy that is in conflict with the idea of resilience.

Resilience, Adaptation, and Institutional Complexity

Although risk-based and resilience-based approaches are usually regarded as complementary (Park et al., 2013), resilience-based management approaches do not fit easily into a risk-based management setting. They can even represent a considerable source of threat to the reputation of an organization as they require policy makers and decision makers to put explicit emphasis on the inherent uncertainties and the unpredictable dynamics that underlie socio-ecological systems (Folke, Carpenter, Elmqvist, Gunderson, Holling, & Walker, 2002). They are in opposition to risk-based management approaches that usually are less concerned with uncertainties and further increase the institutional complexity.

Yet, the rationality of resilience-based approaches (and their often claimed superiority) is grounded above all in the empirical observation of ecosystems and not so much in the institutional challenges that might be associated a resilience-based management approach. According to Holling, management approaches that are based on the idea of stability (i.e., risk-based) are potentially misleading, as they assume a “predictable world” and neglect rare, but devastating events that might result in sudden but drastic changes that can undermine the “structural integrity of the system” (Holling, 1973, p. 21). Therefore, a resilience-based management approach is in many circumstances more favourable as it:

[w]ould emphasize the need to keep options open [. . .]. Flowing from this would be not the presumption of sufficient knowledge, but the recognition of our ignorance; not the assumption that future events are expected, but that they will be unexpected. The resilience framework can accommodate this shift of perspective, for it does not require a precise capacity to predict the future, but only a qualitative capacity to devise systems that can absorb and accommodate future events in whatever unexpected form they may take.

(Holling, 1973, p. 21)

The most prominent translation of Holling’s general idea into a specific operational procedure is the concept of adaptive management (Holling, 1978). While the concept has been much more influential as an idea than in actual practical use (Lee, 1999), it is applied in many different fields including, among others, climate change policy (Arvai et al., 2006), water management (Pahl-Wostl, 2007), and flood risk management (Godden & Kung, 2011). Adaptive management describes a process that is “structured and theoretically driven, [and] designed to elicit specific responses from systems under study such that new knowledge can be incorporated systematically into future treatments” (Arvai et al., 2006, p. 218). It includes, among others, the definition of goals, the identification of alternative management objectives, explicit formulation of hypotheses about causes and possible effects, the implementation of broad-scale experiments, clear procedures about the collection of data and monitoring, and cycles of evaluation and iteration (Allen et al., 2011; Lee, 1999). Embracing the wider participatory turn in science-based policymaking, adaptive management approaches also emphasize the importance of participation to opening up deliberation about the goals, standards of evidence, etc. that need to be taken into account as part of any adaptive approach to addressing the complexities at stake (Armitage, Marschke, & Plummer, 2008; Berkes, 2009).

While adaptive management approaches emphasize openness to uncertainty and to alternative policy options, risk-based approaches close them down by transforming uncertainties into calculable risks whose management can be rationalized through consistent, risk-based priority settings. Considerable tensions arise from a management approach that is both risk and resilience-based. This tension arises from the difference between the ideals of openness, reflexivity, and rationality in the face of uncertainty proposed by the idea of adaptive management and the institutional logics of risk-based management, which focuses on closing down uncertainties and potential avenues of criticism, as well as secondary risks to the reputation of a responsible authority, as the following case-study on future flooding in England reveals (Kuhlicke & Demeritt, 2016).

In England, the national adaptation program (DEFRA, 2013) and associated policy guidance for taking climate change into account require decision makers to be not just risk-based, using various risk-based technologies and policy instruments (i.e., risk mapping, risk-based protection standards, and risk-based resource allocation); they also need to follow an adaptive management approach (for more details, Kuhlicke & Demeritt, 2016). Many strategic policy documents in the Untied Kingdom (e.g., so called Catchment Flood Management Plans [CFMP] and/or Shoreline Management Plans [SMP]) are framed as living documents that evolve over time and that need to be changed and updated to keep up with the latest science (DEFRA, 2006).

However, understanding such plans as living documents increases the complexity of the policy-making processes profoundly and has very practical implications. To illustrate this, Figure 1 displays different sea level rise allowances for the coastlines of England and Wales. It shows that they differ quite substantially on how sea level rise is represented (up to a half meter for the same coastline), although the plans were governed by the same overarching strategic-level guidance on how climate change should be taken into account in more specific planning and management documents.

Risk and Resilience in the Management and Governance of Natural HazardsClick to view larger

Figure 1. Sea-level rise allowance in different management plans in England and Wales. The differing magnitudes of assumed sea level rise for the years 2085 Shoreline Management Plans (SMPs) and 2100 Catchment Flood Management Plans (CFMPs) are represented by the thickness and hue of the various line segments. Their length represents the different stretches of shoreline to which those assumptions were applied in various SMP and CFMP planning documents. Coastal segments for which there is no information about sea level allowances, either because the revisions to the CFMPs and SMPs were not yet complete or the sea level rise assumptions were not publicly available online at the time of writing are represented with a dotted line. The boundaries between the 77 CFMP areas are outlined in grey.

Source: Kuhlicke and Demeritt (2016, p. 63).

The differences in sea level rise allowance are grounded, first, in the different institutional geographies of flood risk and coastal erosion management, and second, in fundamentally different administrative geographies. However, the commitment to an adaptive management approach to climate adaptation is important. Understanding associated management plans as living documents that need to be revised from time to time has resulted in quite different outputs, as the process of revising central guidance was not closely coupled to the timetable for local revisions to the SMPs and CFMPs. Updating these plans can take years, and with different authorities proceeding at different speeds, and the background guidance subject to regular updates to maintain its scientific currency and the institutional credibility of the central government departments responsible for it, different planning processes followed different sets of guiding documents about how to treat and take into account the uncertainties about future sea level rise.

As one informant responsible for overseeing the modeling done by consultants in support of the SMPs recalled:

We were working on the standard guidance when there was the UKCIP02 that came out. That had the lower levels of sea level rise estimates. So some of the early catchment flood management plans started working on that. But then we got the 2006 DEFRA guidance for the operating authorities, and that used the later version of the climate change levels.

(Kuhlicke & Demeritt, 2016)

The combined effect of these institutional processes was that radically different projections about future sea level rise were applied to the same or adjoining parts of the coastline by different planning processes. For example, the CFMPs for the Wye and Usk, and for the Welsh side of the Severn Estuary, prepared under the direction of the Wales regional office of the Environment Agency (EA), have assumed 1,000-mm sea level rise by 2100, twice as much as the more optimistic 500-mm rise assumed by the CFMP for the Parrett catchment on the English side of the Severn, prepared somewhat earlier by officers from the EA’s Southwest region office and informing plans for the Somerset Levels that would later prove to be so politically explosive during the winter floods of 2013–2014 (Demeritt, 2014).

These inconsistencies in planning assumptions were a subject of considerable concern to those working at the operational level. One EA official explained that inconsistencies created problems for him and his colleagues, particularly during the required public consultation phases with the public. Public pressure at these meetings could be intense, as another EA informant working as a community liaison manager explained, “Coastal erosion, storms, and all that kind of thing. People are fairly aware of it, and they can become quite nasty about it” (Kuhlicke & Demeritt, 2016).

In this context, credibility and trust were crucial resources, but they were easily eroded if errors, inconsistencies, or uncertainties were exposed. Within a management framework that is both risk and resilience based, the likelihood of producing such errors increases; on a fundamental level, as underlying policies required policy makers to follow two different objectives: being open to uncertainties and to revising guiding documents and subordinate management plans, if more reliable knowledge on climate change is available; and at the same time, being willing to close off uncertainties and transform them into calculable, manageable risks, in order to implement concrete measures to reduce or mitigate flood risks in specific localities. Risk and resilience are thus interlinked as a strained couple.

However, as the next section argues, risk and resilience are not just in tension with each other; they may also have a complementary function.

Risk and Resilience: A Complementary Couple

While the previous argument was predominantly concerned with how the idea of resilience is made operational in a specific, well-defined management context, this section broadens the argument by referring to what Welsh (2014, p. 19) labels the “governmentalisation of resilience.” It focuses particularly on the role of individuals and how they are increasingly involved in the management of natural hazards by attributing responsibility to them. Therefore the contextual meaning of the term resilience is changing: While in the previous section, resilience was understood as a management objective made operational in policy documents on how to cope procedurally with uncertainty and unpredictability in the face of change; in this section, resilience is understood as a means to subtly attribute meaning to larger governance changes that increasingly redistribute the responsibility for the management of natural hazards from “state-based to society-based conceptions of distributed risk and reaction” (Welsh, 2014, p. 19). This shift is reflected not only in policy strategies such as “Making Space for Water” or “Ruimte voor de Rivier,” it is also taken up in many policy initiatives increasingly attempting to encourage householders and businesses to invest in making their properties more secure to the negative impacts of floodwaters (Begg, Walker, & Kuhlicke, 2015; Walker et al., 2014). In this way, those at risk are gradually transformed into risk managers (Nye, Tapsell, & Twigger-Ross, 2011) who are encouraged, or even required within a multi-scale risk governance network, to take more responsibility for their actions (Coaffee & Rogers, 2008). In this context, the concept of resilience plays a decisive role, as will be argued in this section.

Resilience and the Limits of Responsibility in Risk-Based Decision Making

There are multiple meanings of resilience. While, the concept was initially meant as a descriptive concept in ecology, to better understand the nonlinear dynamics of ecosystems, scholars started, during the 1990s, to include human systems in their analysis of so called socio-ecological systems. According to Folke, the reason was the acknowledgement that “natural and social systems behave in non-linear ways, exhibit marked thresholds in their dynamics, and that social-ecological systems act as strongly coupled, complex, and evolving integrated systems” (Folke et al., 2002, p. 437). However, with the engagement of socio-ecological systems research, the meaning of the concept of resilience has undergone a transition from a descriptive to a prescriptive concept: it has become a “way of thinking, a perspective, or even a paradigm” in more recent years (Brand & Jax, 2007, p. 8). Berkes, for instance, identified four critical factors contributing to building resilience in socio-ecological systems facing natural hazards: (a) learning to live with change and uncertainties, (b) nurturing diversity in its various forms, (c) combining different types of knowledge for learning, and (d) creating opportunity for self-organization and cross-scale linkages (Berkes, 2007). In this sense, resilience is no longer referred to in order to describe and analyze the interaction of ecological and social systems, but it becomes the prescriptive means for how socio-ecological systems should be managed (Cote & Nightingale, 2012), while such modes of resilience thinking are often represented in an apolitical fashion, implying that the management process is, above all, a function of optimization that appears naturally desirable (Cannon & Müller-Mahn, 2010; Sakdapolrak & Etzold, 2016). Thus, they are not only based on the assumption that individuals and communities should protect and organize themselves, they also seem to imply that “threads” are naturally given and not a result of societal or governmental decisions about which risks are acceptable or not.

Generally, there is overwhelming empirical evidence that the exposure to natural hazards, and the capacities to cope with and adapt to their consequences, are unequally distributed among members of a society as well as among communities, regions, and entire nations (Blaikie et al., 1994; Cutter, Boruff, & Shirley, 2003; Fielding, 2007, 2012; O’Keefe et al., 1976). While such inequalities are socially produced, they can be further amplified through the establishment of risk-based decision-making processes (Begg et al., 2015; Gawel & Kuhlicke, 2017; Johnson, Penning-Rowsell, & Parker, 2007; Penning-Rowsell & Pardoe, 2012; Walker, 2012). The aim of risk-based management is—prima facies—to make “the most” out of a given set of limited (monetary) resources. Allocating public resources through risk-based prioritization techniques implies that resources are distributed unequally. As a rule of thumb: the higher the avoided negative consequences of a natural hazards protection scheme (i.e., avoided economic impact), the higher its expected benefit. As a consequence, protecting a settlement with 200 buildings by means of a protection scheme is more efficient than protecting a settlement with 20 buildings, because the benefit for each euro spent is higher.

While such an approach for prioritizing intervention measures is based above all on the idea of optimizing the investment of limited resources with regard to society as a whole, there are also profound distributional effects. On the one hand, there is a gap expectable between those who contribute to the funding of flood protection measures and those who benefit from it (Penning-Rowsell & Pardoe, 2012); on the other hand, the efficient investment of sparse public resources implies transferring funds to areas in which the cost-benefit ratio is higher than in areas with a lower cost-benefit ratio. The implication is that those areas with a better cost-benefit ratio will benefit more from management measures. A good illustration of this relationship is the 2013/2014 flood events in Somerset Levels (United Kingdom). The consequences of the flood events are not just a result of recording-breaking rainfall (Thorne, 2014), but also are a result of a risk-based prioritization strategy:

This was the strategy that the Environment Agency successfully executed in the Somerset Levels [risk-based management of flood events]. It was a strategy designed, first and foremost, to keep water away from cities and towns like Taunton and Bridgewater, which have been largely unscathed, even as, in the face of record-setting rains, water has inevitably accumulated on low lying farmland in the levels. The toll on those affected has been terrible, but their numbers are small compared to what would happen if we sluiced the water downstream through Bridgewater. Similarly in the Thames valley, London and its larger satellite centres, like Reading and Maidenhead, enjoy higher levels of publicly funded protection than outlying villages and rural areas, which have borne the brunt of the flooding to date.

(Demeritt, 2014, p. 1)

Risk calculations not only ascribe probability and consequence to future events, they also influence, through their reliance on cost-benefit analysis, the frequency and intensity of their experience. Larger urban areas within a risk-based setting are more likely to be better protected, compared to smaller, more rural, or less affluent areas, as they are usually defined by a higher accumulation of wealth, by a greater presence of critical infrastructure, and by a higher share of cultural monuments. Rural areas are less likely to receive publicly funded protection schemes and, as a consequence, experience flood events more often.

This example indicates that natural hazards and their consequences are by no means naturally given; they are rather a result of societal decisions. Particularly, the unequal distribution of hazard experience through risk-based prioritization schemes in “tolerated” risks, in the sense that the reduction of risks exceeding the established protection standard are considered as not reasonably desirable, given the costs involved in reducing their probability and consequences). However, by distinguishing acceptable risk from unacceptable risk, a demarcation of public and private responsibilities is taking place. Accepted risks are beyond the scope of state-related risk responsibilities; rather, they fall into the sphere of individual or local responsibilities; it is up to them to become more resilient as the following example indicates. For the UK Resilience Cabinet Office, resilient communities are “communities and individuals harnessing local resources and expertise to help themselves in an emergency, in a way that complements the response of the emergency services” (Cabinet Office, 2011, p. 11; italics by author).

With a risk-based decision-making context, governmental bodies and administrations tend to devolve responsibility to local actors, including citizens, by communicating the limits of their ability to protect citizens and, as a result, make citizens individually and morally responsible to mitigate future flood risks (Bickerstaff, Simmons, & Pidgeon, 2008; Bickerstaff & Walker, 2002). At the same time, in such a setting, public authorities are usually restricted to enabling and supporting roles, and specifically not to funding or legally regulating roles. As a result, individuals and communities need to organize themselves to become more resilient (Welsh, 2014). Resilience-based governance modes structure responsibilities within specific, localized, or even individualized boundaries, without providing the resources (i.e., government support and finances) for these responsibilities to be properly exercised (Begg et al., 2015).

On more practical grounds, the question arises whether making citizens morally and individually responsible results in some form of actionable responsibility (i.e., the case that actual personal precautionary measures are taken) (Eden, 1993). While it is generally acknowledged that citizen perceptions of responsibility play an important role in whether or not citizens take personal action (Lindell & Perry, 2000; Terpstra & Gutteling, 2008), and that acceptability of responsibility is strongly shaped by the belief in the personal ability to fulfill such responsibilities (Lalwani & Duval, 2000), research on the 2013 flood in Germany indicates that attitudes toward responsibility are influenced by the experience of a disastrous event (Begg, Ueberham, Masson, & Kuhlicke, 2016). If exposed residents had taken flood mitigation measures before the 2013 flood, as they were encouraged to do by recent legislations in Germany to increase their individual resilience, and if they perceived the consequences of the 2013 flood as rather moderate, they are likely to agree with statements that support citizen responsibility. Alternatively, if consequences are perceived as severe, the relationship between actions and appraisal processes does not change significantly, which implies that the experience of a severe flood undermines not just the acceptance of citizen responsibility but also the response and coping efficacy of exposed households, regardless of whether a household has taken action or not. In a nutshell: responsibility is accepted if experienced consequences are perceived as minor. However, if consequences are perceived as severe and derogating, responsibility is rejected and support from state authorities and the larger community is expected. Such support, however, is exactly not a key characteristic of resilience-based governance modes as they tend to delegate responsibility to the individual and local level.

Conclusion: Risk Resilience as a Paradoxical and Complementary Couple

The relationships between the concepts of risk and resilience in the management and governance of natural hazards are manifold and by no means straightforward, at least if one focuses on how concepts are framed and utilized in specific policies and practical contexts aimed at mitigating the consequences of natural hazards. More specifically, this article argues that both concepts are defined by a paradoxical yet complementary relationship that shapes current figurations of risk governance regimes.

Risk-based based management approaches are not just a means to allocate spare resources efficiently, they also have defensive functions in deflecting blame and rationalizing policy choices ex-ante by enabling managing organizations to more clearly define which risks they are responsible for (and hence accountable) and which are beyond their responsibility. At the same time, the demarcation of acceptable and non-acceptable risks has enormous distributional effects, as accepted risks usually need to be mitigated individually, resulting in new patterns of inequality.

The concept of resilience in this context plays a paradoxical and complementary role. In its more operational interpretation, resilience-based management approaches can be in conflict with risk-based approaches, at least from an operational and policy-making perspective, as they pull those responsible for managing current and future flood risks in different directions. While resilience-based management approaches acknowledge uncertainties and put an emphasis on openness and flexibility, risk-based approaches try to ensure proportionality and cost-effectiveness by closing down uncertainties and transforming them into calculable risks, resulting in inconsistencies. A management strategy that is both risk and resilience-based increases the complexity of an institutional context considerably and may represent a considerable institutional risk for managing authorities.

At the same time, resilience-based governance approaches, with their emphasis on self-organization and learning, are often defined by blurred responsibilities and complement risk-based approaches in the sense that actors or communities that are exposed to accepted risks are implicitly or explicitly made responsible for building and maintaining their resilience, whereas the role of public authorities is usually to enable, and specifically not to fund or legally regulate. Exposed households not benefiting from risk-based management approaches may be discriminated twice: Not only are they flooded more often, they are also left alone with the expectation to become resilient.

To be sure, these are just first thoughts presented on how both concepts support and contradict each other; more empirical research is needed on how these interrelations play out in specific socio-cultural-political contexts, in order to further substantiate the ideas presented here.

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(1.) 4th Annual UK Resilience Conference, 2016, Enhancing Capabilities to Absorb, Respond to, and Recover from Emergencies, London.