Communities in the Alps have a strong relationship with their natural environment. The distinct landscape of valleys flanked by steep mountains supports their livelihoods, based on agriculture and tourism, but it also creates risks: a history of landslides, debris flows and avalanches.

In December 2012, an exceptionally large landslide struck Badia, Italy, in the South Tyrol region. As part of the EU-funded emBRACE project, which aims to build resilience to disasters in communities across Europe, SEI and partners studied local residents’ and authorities’ response to the disaster.

“The aim of our research was to understand people’s risk perception and risk behaviour and how it changed due to this event,” says Lydia Pedoth, a researcher at the European Academy of Bozen/Bolzano (EURAC) who led the study, working with SEI Oxford and York staff. “We also examined the role of local knowledge, community identity and social networks, and the relationship between the community and the risk management authorities.”

A framework for studying community resilience

The emBRACE project is multifaceted, including research to identify key dimensions of resilience; the development of a conceptual framework; testing and grounding of that framework in multiple contexts – along with South Tyrol, also Switzerland, Central Europe, Northern England and Turkey – and network-building and knowledge-sharing across a range of stakeholders.

The South Tyrol case study reflects this multifaceted approach, and combines rich local knowledge – EURAC is based in South Tyrol – with SEI’s technical expertise and experience in other contexts. The study included a population survey, interviews and social network mapping.

“This case study successfully brought together different methods and involved people in the region,” says Richard Taylor, a senior research fellow at SEI in Oxford. “In that way, it built up a detailed picture of the local population, their individual perceptions and the important landscape factors.”

Richard Taylor and Lydia Pedoth work on the social network mapping at SEI Oxford. Photo by Anneli Sundin.

Local perspectives

A notable finding is that while in Badia, people were aware of the fact that they lived in a high-risk area and knew about past incidents – some had even experienced them – before the 2012 landslide, they did not expect another disaster to happen. As a consequence, they had not actively prepared.

So after the event, what has been most important in building resilience? Traditional local knowledge has been crucial, Pedoth says. Most people got their information about past hazards from other community members and family – far more than from the media. A strong sense of community and social networks also proved to be very valuable for dealing with the impacts of the hazard and will also help build resilience going forward.

The social network analysis showed a highly interlinked core network involving actors from different organizational scales (local, provincial and national). Moreover, different actors had similar views of the network, which Pedoth says is very important in a crisis or disaster situation.

The social network map produced by the case study team.

Additional key factors for resilience that were identified in the study are the existence of a local civil protection plan and regular emergency exercises, along with a core team that needs little time to become active and fully operational. People also know one another personally, which builds trust and helps risk management organizations to better understand local people’s needs and perspectives. Moreover, the analysis found that the local emergency plan accurately predicted whom people would turn to for help in an emergency: the volunteer local fire brigade and the Municipality of Badia.

Volkmar Mair, director of the Office for Geology and Building Materials Testing in Bolzano, followed the study closely. “These types of studies are very important, because we as authority are outcome-oriented, and for us it is absolutely key to understand how the activities we carry out in dealing with natural hazards are perceived by the local communities,” he says.

Mair also says he has gained a greater appreciation of the full range of factors that affect resilience. “We are aware that technical measures alone are not enough,” he says, “but that it is important to involve social aspects, i.e. how people behave in crisis situations.”

Read the report on South Tyrol »

Learn more about emBRACE (external link)

See the case study on weADAPT »