Moving past the rhetoric of resilience

By Veronica Woodruff

A collaborative, all-of-society approach infuses disaster risk reduction academic literature (Combaz, 2014; Eslamian & Eslamian, 2021), government policy directives (including the UN Sendai Framework and Public Safety Canada guidance), and the language used in community bylaws at local levels.

Communities need a viable pathway for increasing public safety that supports the transition from where they are today in order to meet the expected future conditions. Alex Steffen (2021) suggests that communities need to ‘ruggedize’ as an alternative to building resilience. In Steffen’s view, resilience strategies are bolt-on protective policies for a system that no longer exists. Ruggedization is a way to move past the rhetoric of resilience, conveying both the urgency and challenge of addressing the complexities of risk. It invokes a visualization of the depth of personal and community resolve required to quickly and collaboratively prepare for future disasters.

To explore what this could look like in action, a research study was conducted in Pemberton, British Columbia to explore how building collaborative capacity might increase ‘ruggedization’ to escalating natural hazard risk.

A community at risk

Located in Lil̓wat Nation Traditional Territory, Pemberton is a rapidly growing, rural, mountainous community in southwest BC situated in the Lillooet River valley. The 2021 census reported a 32.4% population increase from 2016, with available dwellings up an astounding 89.2% (Statistics Canada, 2022). Mount Meager lies 50 km from town, a dormant yet geologically active volcano. In 2010, the largest landslide in Canada occurred on Mount Meager, depositing 50 million cubic meters of sediment into the Lillooet River valley (Guthrie et al., 2012). The slide debris drastically reduced the effectiveness of the town’s flood protection infrastructure, significantly increasing flood risk to approximately 7,000 residents (NHC, 2018).

Image: View of Mt. Meager landslide from the air. This is the site of Canada’s largest known landslide and debris has been filling the Lillooet River, increasing flood risk for communities downstream, such as Pemberton. © Veronica Woodruff, reproduced with permission.

Engaging the Pemberton community

In 2021, a research project brought together representatives from local governments, elected officials, response agencies (e.g., fire, medical, police), social service providers, businesses, non-profit organizations, and residents to discuss the current and future state of community collaboration in the face of the town’s growing flood risk. The research collaborators used artwork to open dialogue on meaningful next-step actions. Participants noted that experiencing risk creates strong community bonds. For example, the 2021 flood during the heat dome was described as an opportunity for collective, adventurous, meaning-making, described by Participant #1 as, “we actually called it an ‘evacu-cation’ with our friends…because it was really fun actually, but stressful for them. Well, obviously stressful for everyone.”

Participants recognized that both benefits and barriers exist to collaboration and that effective communication is a critical component of collaborative action.

Commit to working together

Participants observed that where pre-existing relationships with local contextual awareness existed, collaboration between local agencies was simplified even when jurisdictional boundaries conflicted or overlapped. However, participants noted that transcending the siloed, vertical lines of provincial or federal authority during the mitigation, planning, and recovery phases of emergency management made collaboration challenging. Stroh (2019) describes this dynamic as “accidental adversaries” (p. 20): Two organizations strive for the same goal (e.g., flood protection), yet isolated actions that suit one entity can inadvertently limit the success of the other, often unbeknownst to either participant, and ultimately compromise the whole system.

Although multiple barriers to collaboration were identified, there was a resounding willingness and desire to transcend boundaries and contribute to processes that could increase community ‘ruggedization’. Participants called for funding to support and increase collaboration, for defining a process for engaging community members and professionals, and for using existing local government committees to recruit expert contributors (e.g., social services personnel, medical professionals, other first responders). Implementing these collaborative structures would help Pemberton move beyond resilience into action and ruggedize the system to withstand the bumpy road ahead.

Image: Significant debris and sediment has been added to the Lillooet River. © Veronica Woodruff, reproduced with permission.

The need for adaptive governance

The most complex recommendation emerging from this collaborative research project was for policymakers to implement adaptive governance strategies. The research participants noted multiple examples of policies, conflicting mandates, and perceived risk aversion that were increasing risk scenarios for the community. For example, the BC Ministry of Municipal Affairs recently shifted its funding policy so municipalities, regional districts, or Indigenous communities are eligible for funding only if they own the infrastructure of interest. Unfortunately for Pemberton, local dikes have been owned and managed by a legislated Improvement District since their construction in the late 1940s. In addition, the option to apply for funding through collaborative agreements has also been removed. Local representatives must now spend significant time advocating for funding, which uses already limited resources and delays project implementation. Under an adaptive governance model, this unintended policy impact could be quickly revised once it was revealed.

As highlighted by the UN (2022), current governance models underestimate the complexity of modern interconnected systems and the cascading risks associated with multiple tipping points, and thus have difficulty embracing the transformation required to meet this new reality. Djalante et al., (2013) characterizes adaptive governance as “notions of governance that are more flexible and innovative and that encourage learning to better manage uncertainties and system complexities” (p. 2111).

Implementing an adaptive governance model will require embracing some level of risk, while building in appropriate monitoring systems. The key is transforming strong situational understanding into action and having the ability to adjust as necessary, without bureaucratic delays, based on observed repercussions of policy direction or mitigation tactics. Adaptive governance is an important strategy for ‘ruggedization’ because it allows communities to take action immediately to reduce their risks, adjusting as necessary, without having to wait for the perfect conditions before they can begin to build resilience. As one research participant noted, perfection cannot impede progress when trying to mitigate the rapidly increasing risk. There is no need to forego striving for the highest standards but there is a requirement to create viable pathways to attain these necessary aspirations for community safety.

The collaborative research project illustrates the value of collaborative effort and good communication, the strength of shared community experience and knowledge, the advantages of building on existing networks, and the benefits of and need for adaptive governance to support ruggedization in the face of our changing climate.


Veronica Woodruff has been working as an environmental professional for two decades in government, non-profit organizations, and consulting. Her deep community connections and boundless fascination with the natural processes of BC Watersheds, converged to support the completion of her Master of Arts in Leadership from Royal Roads.





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