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date: 10 December 2018

Risk and Resilience in Management and Governance Processes

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Natural Hazard Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Attempts to manage natural hazards are undergoing considerable transformations. This includes 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 similarly: 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 its 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 also 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: Establishing an inclusive risk governance mode means also to open up new avenues for the public to challenge the decisions made by responsible authorities.

To understand some of these dynamics a change of perspective is fruitful: Instead of asking how the concept of risk or resilience might be useful to improve the management and governance of natural hazards, it is helpful to understand how societies are governed by the concept of risk and resilience. Following this perspective, risk-based management approaches have predominantly a defensive function in deflecting blame and rationalizing policy choices ex ante by enabling managing organizations to more clearly define for which “risks” they are responsible (i.e., nonacceptable risks) and which are beyond their responsibility (i.e., acceptable risks). At the same time, this demarcation has also profound distributional effects as acceptable risks usually need to be mitigated individually and/or locally, 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 plays in this context a paradoxical and, at the same time, complementary role: In its more operational interpretation (e.g., adaptive management), 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 the idea of resilience puts an emphasis on openness and flexibility, managing natural hazards that are risk based aims at ensuring the proportionality of costs and benefits usually by closing down uncertainties in order to transform them 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 resilience on their own, since the role of public authorities is usually restricted to an enabling one.