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Understanding uncertainty and reducing vulnerability: lessons from resilience thinking

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Vulnerability is registered not by exposure to hazards alone; it also resides in the resilience of the system experiencing the hazard. Resilience (the capacity of a system to absorb recurrent disturbances, such as natural disasters, so as to retain essential structures, processes and feedbacks) is important for the discussion of vulnerability for three reasons: (1) it helps evaluate hazards holistically in coupled human–environment systems, (2) it puts the emphasis on the ability of a system to deal with a hazard, absorbing the disturbance or adapting to it, and (3) it is forward-looking and helps explore policy options for dealing with uncertainty and future change. Building resilience into human–environment systems is an effective way to cope with change characterized by surprises and unknowable risks. There seem to be four clusters of factors relevant to building resilience: (1) learning to live with change and uncertainty, (2) nurturing various types of ecological, social and political diversity for increasing options and reducing risks, (3) increasing the range of knowledge for learning and problem-solving, and (4) creating opportunities for␣self-organization, including strengthening of local institutions and building cross-scale linkages and problem-solving networks.

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This paper is based on a presentation at the Conference of the Canadian Risk and Hazards Network (CRHNet), November 2004, Winnipeg. I thank E. Haque, President of CRHNet, for encouraging me to make a foray into the field of vulnerability and hazards. I am grateful to Thomas Elmqvist (Stockholm University), Madhav Gadgil (Indian Institute of Science), and Apurba Deb, Melissa Marschke and Tad Murty (all of University of Manitoba) for some of the information cited in this paper. I thank three anonymous reviewers for detailed comments. Particularly insightful material from one of them has been incorporated into the paper. My work is supported by the Social Sciences Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program.

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Correspondence to Fikret Berkes.

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Berkes, F. Understanding uncertainty and reducing vulnerability: lessons from resilience thinking. Nat Hazards 41, 283–295 (2007).

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