Big change after the big storm: Post-disaster transformative adaptation in Small Island Developing States

02 November 2017

Written by
Patrick Pringle

Presenting a disaster as an ‘opportunity’ is clearly a sensitive and emotive issue. When the most basic needs of affected communities are not being met, often months after an event, talk of renewable energy systems and long-term resilience may seem academic and impractical. Yet it is reasonable to consider the counter-argument; when an energy infrastructure is in tatters should we not view this as a chance to make a fundamental transition to a low carbon future? When will there be a better opportunity to relocate essential services away from high risk areas than when they need rebuilding? When do we consider what we truly value more than when we have suffered loss?

Recent hurricanes brought devastation to a number of small islands in the Caribbean, including major damages to infrastructure like power supply. ©Mark Yokoyama, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In recent years, there has been a growing call for transformative responses to climate change. Transformation requires radical and fundamental change to systems[i] rather than gradual or incremental steps to reduce emissions or adapt to climate change. The increasing interest in transformative action implies that current incremental responses to climate change are insufficient in limiting global warming to 1.5°C, or in ensuring that societies are resilient to the impacts of climate change. A number of researchers have described ecological crises[ii], social and economic shocks[iii] , and rapid change as ‘windows of opportunity’ to trigger transformations[iv]. This raises the question of whether climate-related disasters such as tropical cyclones present opportunities to fundamentally rethink systems and transition to a low carbon, resilient state more swiftly than might otherwise have been possible.

Elon Musk’s recent offer to bring Tesla to Puerto Rico to rebuild the island’s energy grid following Hurricane Maria brings such discussions into sharp focus, but there are also more modest, yet no less valuable examples of transformation following disasters. Project Lyttelton, a community based at the epicentre of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake in Aotearoa New Zealand, illustrates how transformation of community values such as reciprocity, skill sharing and resourcefulness can support post-disaster resilience at community level[v]. It shows how reverting to traditional values and indigenous knowledge can help enhance resilience, and represents a different type of transformation.

Transformative approaches often come with risks which governments and communities, stretched for resources and struggling to meet the most essential requirements of citizens, feel understandably reticent to take. Implementation of new technologies and approaches can be challenging anywhere, yet the post-disaster environment can contain many more practical and technical obstacles. Post-disaster funding often requires additional monies to be ‘found’ or draws upon limited contingencies, yet transformative efforts may require greater upfront investments than replacing what is already there. Affected communities cannot reasonably be expected to take part in the detailed engagement processes required to ensure that new systems will really reflect their needs, while insurance companies often replace ‘like-for-like’ and will not contribute towards upgrades in standards and quality. There may also be understandable resistance to change, and victims of disasters may be perceived as ‘guinea pigs’ for new approaches and technologies that often come with teething problems. While the opportunity may exist to promote systemic change, a post-disaster context presents anything but a ‘soft landing’ for innovation and new ideas.

So, what can SIDS do to ensure that post-cyclone rebuilding efforts are able to exploit transformative opportunities, and use the post-disaster environment as the chance to make a technological ‘leapfrog’ and to rethink values and approaches?

If there is a poor understanding of the dynamics of the existing system, interventions to improve the situation may fail or even make it worse[vi]. Consequently, SIDS need to understand their existing vulnerabilities at a systems level in order to be able to design interventions that are appropriate to their contexts, needs and values. Countries and donor communities need to be highly coordinated and have a sound appreciation of the emerging opportunities for transformation. To inform this understanding, communities should be consulted regarding medium- and longer-term priorities and ambitions in advance, so that changes are part of a well-communicated, resilient, low carbon development pathway. Those supporting rebuilding efforts will need to manage immediate needs while retaining the strategic vision for long-term improvements to infrastructure and systems.

Financial mechanisms will need to be in place to enable transformative investments to be implemented and ensure that ‘doing things differently’ does not cause delays. This may require the rapid deployment of large investments. The growth in insurance mechanisms for countries exposed to cyclone risk is widely seen as a positive development, but strategic discussions with the insurance sector will be required to ensure that insurance monies are not limited to only replacing what was there before. National level awareness of, and information on, non-economic losses must be strengthened as for many of the most vulnerable communities in SIDS, losses go far beyond the realm of the quantity surveyor and the dollar sign. Insight into such losses can also help to reflect local values and priorities in future planning, rather than imposing new technologies from outside. Planning processes should connect mitigation and adaptation efforts closely, so that technologies that support low carbon development are also resilient to future cyclone events.

Efforts to better integrate climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction within SIDS can help with a number of these issues. In the Pacific region, the Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific (FRDP) provides a structure for such discussions, while at national level, countries such as the Cook Islands, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and Tonga have developed Joint National Action Plans for climate change and disaster risk management within which transformative ambitions could planned. Coordination will be needed at Ministry-level, and there are examples of SIDS bringing together critical functions; for example, Vanuatu has a single Ministry dealing with climate adaptation, meteorology, geo-hazards, environment, energy and critical disaster management.

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has broken numerous records; Irma, for her prolonged intensity of wind speed, Harvey smashed all-time continental U.S. tropical cyclone rainfall records, while 2017 was the first time on record that four consecutive named Atlantic storms reached Category 4 status or higher. While research indicates that climate change will increase the intensity of such storms in the future, they remain extreme and relatively infrequent events. It is not a viable strategy to simply wait for such events and hope that they can be used as windows of opportunity for fundamental improvements to systems. Nor should transformation be seen as ‘sugar-coating’ a disaster, the impacts on communities are real and their needs immediate. SIDS at risk from such events need to already have ambitious transformative plans in place for resilient, low carbon societies. If the worst happens, they may then be in a position to use a climate-related disaster as a springboard to a better future.


[i] Feola, G., 2015. Societal transformation in response to global environmental change: a review of emerging concepts. Ambio44(5), pp.376-390.
[ii] Folke, C., 2006. Resilience: The emergence of a perspective for social–ecological systems analyses. Global environmental change16(3), pp.253-267.
[iii] Olsson, P., Gunderson, L., Carpenter, S., Ryan, P., Lebel, L., Folke, C. and Holling, C.S., 2006. Shooting the rapids: navigating transitions to adaptive governance of social-ecological systems. Ecology and society11(1).
[iv] Lonsdale, K., Pringle, P. & Turner, B. 2015. Transformative adaptation: what it is, why it matters & what is needed. UK Climate Impacts Programme, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
[v] Cretney, R. and Bond, S., 2014. ‘Bouncing back’ to capitalism? Grass-roots autonomous activism in shaping discourses of resilience and transformation following disaster. Resilience2(1), pp.18-31.
[vi] Cork, S., Eckersley, R. & Walker, B. (2007). Rapid and surprising change in Australia’s future: anticipating and preparing for future challenges and opportunities on the way to a sustainable Australia. Australia21, Weston, Australia.


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