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Strong community ties help overcome disaster: expert

Posted on July 15, 2013

In the week when 19 US firefighters lost their lives battling an inferno in Arizona, a researcher from The University of Western Australia presented findings about building disaster-resilient communities.

Assistant Professor Bryan Boruff, who addressed the Institute of Australian Geographers Conference at UWA, said humans have co-existed with natural disasters and environmental calamity since the dawn of time.

“When a disaster strikes, a community has no choice but to respond and cope with the event.  But why is it that some communities cope and adapt better than others in the face of adversity?” he said.

With his team from UWA’s Schools of Earth and Environment and Population Health, Assistant Professor Boruff has looked at this question from the point of view of social capital – the ties that bring together individuals within a community, or link communities to individuals and organisations on the outside.

“These ties allow the community to draw upon resources which may not be provided by the government but are necessary in responding and adapting to extreme events,” he said.

Assistant Professor Boruff has spent the last few years examining long-term recovery from Moora’s 1999 flood and Cyclone Vance in Exmouth, also in 1999.  His research tracks the roles of various individuals and organisations during the recovery process while highlighting the networks that link each to the community.

“While government organisations play a role in a community’s recovery, kinships, friendships and other social relationships are extremely important in the long term,” he said.

While this research focuses on disaster recovery, Assistant Professor Boruff said far less attention had been paid to the role of social capital in disaster prevention and preparation and in building community resilience.

To address this issue, his group has recently published a book chapter in Social Capital:  Theory, Measurement and Outcomes (Editor:  C. Douglas Johnson) exploring the role of social capital across the disaster management cycle, encompassing disaster response, recovery, preparedness, prevention and mitigation.

“Drawing on case studies and examples from around the world and from our own research, we illustrate what it means for communities to harness social capital in the face of disaster,” he said.

“This multi-disciplinary perspective highlights how the capacity of communities to cope and respond to disaster is relevant to many domains, including government, policy makers, public health, community development, hazard management, human geography and environmental sustainability,” said co-author Associate Professor Lisa Wood of UWA’s Centre for the Built Environment and Health.

Source: UNSW

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