Undesired Resilience: Common pitfalls in resilience thinking

By Patrick Keys

Let me start by saying that I think the concept of “resilience” is a very useful one, but that it has also sort of spun out of control.

Brief rant on “resilience” and its definition

As one of the many buzzwords that is getting a lot of air time (e.g. resilience to climate change, resilience to flooding, resilience to drought), resilience has started to conjure the same warm and fuzzy response as “sustainability”, “organic”, and “free beer”. All the while, I think  the meaning of resilience has become diluted. The definition that a water resource scientist may give is likely to be different from a rural health worker, which is likely to be different from a development economist.

Flooded stairs in Hue City, Vietnam (Copyright: Patrick Keys, 2012)

Resilience refers to the ability to remain in a stable state regardless of perturbations. Thus first and foremost, resilience must be used relative to something else, as in “resilience of X to Y”. For example, a farm (X) can be resilient to drought (Y).

However, what is often missing from discussions about resilience is that it is not always a good thing. For example, a farm (X) can be resilient to water management efforts (Y). This means that the farm is in a resilient and undesirable state. These twin concepts of resilience and desirability both need to be present when talking about whether or not a given project/development/whatever is on track to being a good thing or a bad thing.

To sum up: when someone talks about Resilience, remember to consider:

a) Resilience …of what (X)… to what (Y)

b) Is this resilience desirable?

Here is a figure from a recent book chapter entitled “Watershed management through a resilience lens”, by Barron and Keys (2011). Note that the “stability” axis can be considered a proxy for resilience.


The arrows in the figure indicate where a system moved after a “watershed managment” intervention was taken. The take home is that a system can occupy both a stable (resilient) or unstable (unresilient) state, while also being either undesirable or desirable. Are we on the same page? Great.

Talking about resilience and poor people – the big pitfall

If you thought I was going to mention the awesome 80’s Atari game, not that Pitfall! But, similar to the digital traps in the game, there are mental traps regarding resilience that are easy to fall into – particularly when thinking of communities in the developing world. Here are some important pitfalls:

The two phrases that make my skin crawl are:

“Poor people are the least resilient to climate change”

“Poor people are the most resilient to climate change”

Fisherman in Hue City, Vietnam (Copyright: Patrick Keys, 2012)

The problem here is that both are right and both are wrong. For example, imagine two families living along a river. The ‘poor’ family lives below the river bank, right along the river. The ‘rich’ family lives on the river bank, above the river. When the river floods, the poor family can move quickly and adapt to the changing conditions as the flood levels rise (because they don’t have anything!). The rich family is stuck in their concrete house as it gets flooded. When the flood recedes, the poor family goes back to the river, and the rich family mops up their house.

Both families return to their way of life pre-flood. Is the poor family more resilient than the rich family? Is the rich family more resilient than the poor family? [Discuss]

I’m not going to answer that question. My point is that the pitfall is thinking of this in purely “resilience” terms. The question isn’t weather the poor people are resilient or not, its whether they want to be or not. The desirability of the state is every bit as important as the resilience.

Moving forward – “Desirable Resilience”

I don’t really like that phrase, but right now its what I can think to write. The idea that resilience researchers (and everyone else that is working in this field – if only not in name) need to get into their heads is that without attaching the desires of the system they are looking at – which often happens to be poor people – then resilience is neither a good thing or a bad thing, its just a thing.

Does anyone have thoughts on a better way to phrase the idea of desirable resilience? Am I totally reinventing the wheel here?

The QANAT July 3 to July 12


“Both India and China will face drop in the yield of wheat and rice anywhere between 30-50% by 2050. At the same time, demand for food grains will go up by at least 20%. As a net result, China and India alone will need to import more than 200-300 million tons of wheat and rice, driving up the international prices of these commodities in the world market.” The Taps Running Dry, Forbes India, 7/6/10


“The municipal government has set up 900 tents, four toilets and tap water supply for the evacuated people from 2,000 families near the Wenquan Reservoir, said Zhu Jianping, Golmud mayor.” 9,000 evacuated from NW China city near risky reservoir, China Daily, 7/11/10

“Nearly 17.2 million residents in nine provinces were affected by flood-related disasters and 597,000 people were relocated from July 1 to 12 a.m. of July 10, the ministry said in its latest disaster relief update.” South China flood death toll reaches 50, China Daily, 7/11/10

“Engineers opened three sluice gates to discharge some 32,000 cubic meters of water per second and another sluice gate to release floating objects.” Three Gorges Dam discharges flood, China Daily, 7/11/10

“More than 27,370 hectares of farmland were flooded, 242 houses collapsed and at least 10,157 residents were evacuated from flooded homes, the disaster relief office of Hubei Provincial Civil Affairs Bureau said” China to battle storms following heat wave, China Daily, 7/9/10


“A massive aid relief operation in Mexico has brought aid to tens of thousands of people cut off by severe flooding.” Mexico rushes aid to flood victims, al Jazeera, 7/6/10


“Residents of Sebalang village, Lampung, have urged the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) to immediately name suspects in what they allege to be a case of illegal land grabbing for a steam-powered power plant (PLTU) project.….”The compensation of only Rp 500 *about 5 US cents* per square meter of land is inhumane. But we have no choice because we risk attracting violence,” Sebalang resident Rosihan said recently.” Residents left in the lurch after land grab, The Jakarta Post, 7/12/10

“… about 2.5 millions of  people in Niger are currently affected by food shortage.” Niger: The Silent Famine, Global Voices, 7/12/10

The QANAT: March 29 – April 4

[For extensive coverage of the drought in Guizhou and Yunnan go to the China Daily’s SW Drought HQ]

“In the past several decades, the State has been giving priority to water projects on major rivers and in major grain producing areas, but has neglected building water facilities in mountain and hill areas that do not grow grain.” State should get their feet wet, China Daily, March 29

Villagers work to construct a water tank in the drought-plagued Hechi city of Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region…” Villagers work around the clock for water, China Daily, March 29

“It was the first rain I have seen since last October, but it only lasted for about three hours from 3 am to 6 am this morning…” Rain falls on drought plagued Yunnan, China Daily, March 29

” In the worst-case scenario, there would be no water supply. A dry spell will also emerge in North China, where spring drought occurs in nine out of every 10 years…[senior drought relief official]”Warning of worst case scenario, China Daily, March 29

“About one-tenth of Mongolia’s livestock, an estimated 4.5 million animals, have perished leaving herders desperate for food and other emergency relief.” Red Cross appeals for Mongolia aid, Al Jazeerah, March 29

“Shares in state-owned Chongqing Water jumped 74 percent in Shanghai on Monday, well ahead of market predictions for a gain of around 25 percent …” Chongqing Goes Kaching in its Shanghai Debut, New York Times, March 29

“”Normal” has little meaning in Sakai today. Kenya is struggling to emerge from a drought that put 4 million on food aid last year and saw at least 10 million facing starvation, the highest levels in two decades…” The Struggle of Farming a Land Where ‘Normal’ Has Lost Its Meaning, New York Times, March 29

“… The drought has lingered in southwest China for months, affecting 61.3 million residents and five million hectares of crops …” Aerial view of drought-hit areas in SW China, People’s Daily, March 31

“The central government allocated drought-relief funds totaling more than 4.1 billion yuan ($600 million) to Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, Chongqing and Sichuan province in southwestern China …” Southwest China in Drought Emergency, People’s Daily SW Drought HQ, March 31

“…the green-plant coverage in Gaosha town area has exceeded 3 million square acres, turning the previous 1.2 million-acre desert area into a green one…” “Green wall” helps curb desertification, People’s Daily, March 31

“Nazarbayev for the first time fully endorsed the position of Uzbek leader Islam Karimov’s administration, which maintains that no hydropower facilities should be built in so-called upstream countries until international feasibility studies are completed.” Nazarbayev makes diplomatic trade-off with Karimov, Eurasianet.org, March 18

What are the alternatives?

Peter Gleick recently posted some remarks regarding dam building Southern California.  Find his post at Circle of Blue here.  I agree with his perspectives on the need for fiscal responsibility when it comes to these mega-projects of the Central Valley Project in California (seen on the right).  Especially when the beneficiaries are the same farmers who still owe money on previous enormous public works projects.

However, I am curious about alternatives to dams.  He says

“It won’t solve agriculture’s more fundamental challenges. It won’t restore our Delta ecosystems. It won’t satisfy new urban demands. In the end, the massive new infrastructure proposed for public financing would be an expensive distraction from real solutions.”

Okay.  Of course I believe you.  But, I’m left wondering what are “agriculture’s more fundamental challenges?”  Is it water use efficiency?  Is it crop choice?  Is it entrenched dogma about water rights?

Also, what are the “real solutions” you mention?

Clarification on these points could help facilitate a more productive discussion about how to move forward.