Vulnerability: What is vulnerability?
• Some definitions of vulnerability are mathematical, some are prose, and some are both
(pg 9) Parallels emerge with “probability” representing hazard and consequences or
possible consequences representing vulnerability.
• Vulnerability arises from numerous factors, hence addressing vulnerability must
simultaneously consider multiple dimensions. In focusing on root causes, we focus on
societal aspects, and not individual characteristics.
Human vulnerability to disaster
• Vulnerability, like risk and hazard, is a possible future state that implies high risk
combined with an inability to cope ( pg 38)
• For example to an earthquake engineer, vulnerability means the quality of the built
structure in terms of its resistance to seismic stress.
• Timmerman viewed human vulnerability as the degree of resistance offered by a social
system to the impact of a hazardous event.
• Resistance depends on 1) Resilience and 2) reliability
• Resilience is a measure of the capacity to absorb and recover from a hazardous event
Resilience and Reliability
• Traditional resilience is common in LDC’s where disaster is a normal part of life and
group coping strategies are important. For example, nomadic herdsmen in semi-arid
areas tend to accumulate cattle during years with good pasture as an insurance against
• Reliability reflects the frequency with which protective devices against hazard fail. This
approach is more applicable to developed countries where technology ensures a high
degree of reliability for most urban services
Piers Blaikie’s definition
• Blaikie et al argued that it is people- not systems- that deal with disaster. Their definition
“ the characteristics of a person or group in terms of their capacity to anticipate, cope with,
resist and recover from the impact of a natural hazard”
According to Blaikie et al, socio-economic problems combined with insecure physical
environments create a high degree of vulnerability. Similar to Gilbert White’s people centred
analysis of disasters
Methodological/ Methods of studying disasters
• Thus geographers and others working in some of the interpretative social sciences
( anthropology, sociology, history) look at the social, cultural dimensions of disasters
They do this primarily by employing qualitative tools. Interviews, ethnography and
archival research are important here
• Class, gender, ethnicity and other social and cultural variables play a major role in
• Experiences with disasters throws light on the process both during and post disaster.
• More on this in the next class on 5 March where I will be speaking on the qualitative
tools which are used to research disasters
What variables affect survival rates during disasters?
How gender probably played a role in survival rates after a disaster • Example of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. female deaths outnumbered male.
Swimming ability and physical strength are not guarantees of survival in coastal floods
because debris and collisions with stationary objects are significant dangers, but
vulnerability is augmented by lack of swimming ability, lack of comfort in water, and
• Thus to focus on the individual characteristics of gender and to claim that women are
inherently more vulnerable than mean in coastal floods, neglects the roots cause of
vulnerability. The roots cause is the vulnerable role in which women are placed in
society, which inhibits their swimming ability, their comfort in water, and their physical
strength through factors such as restrictive clothes, worse nourishment than males .
• The predominant influence on vulnerability to large scale disasters are increasing
population numbers and, to some extent, increasing population densities.
• Increased vulnerability from increasing population results from the definition of large
scale disaster: the more people affected, the larger the disaster. Examples are coastal
cities in developing countries and their vulnerability to coastal hazards and disasters.
• Larger cities and faster urbanization increase vulnerability to disasters.
• A poorer country might be unable to invest in disaster mitigation. Mitigation investments
are overly expensive.
• Even those cities or countries that can afford the immediate investment have a choice,
but that choice is often for increased vulnerability and increased long term costs
because short term economic paradigms prevail.
• Unwillingness to invest in climate change mitigation in developing countries.
• Poverty is defined as a root cause contributing to vulnerability because poorer people
tend to have fewer choices regarding 1) where they live, both the types of buildings and
locations relative to hazards; and 2) access to education, health care, insurance, political
lobbying, and legal recourse
Poverty and its circular relationship with Vulnerability
• Poverty leads to vulnerability, but vulnerability can lead to poverty if disasters continually
occur, precluding any opportunity to address vulnerability over the longer term.
• Second, wealth can augment one aspect of vulnerability because more value exists to
• Wealth permits choices that can increase vulnerability. Example of Californian mansions
on the coastline and their vulnerability.
• Governance. Building design, state of regulation in cities. Define.
• Differences between Canada and developing countries.
Root Causes of Vulnerability
• In summary, root causes of vulnerability and hence disasters are:
1)Increasing population and, to some degree, increasing population densities
2) Inadequate economic structures, incorporating poverty
3) Lack of leadership and political will, which is related to governance.
Discussion: Hurricane Katrina video
• Highlighted vulnerability of poor communities in coastal South Eastern United States.
• Highlighted state of governance in the US. Both before and in the aftermath of the
disaster. • How “natural” are natural disasters? What do engineering interventions tell us about
society-nature relationship in the North American and modern context?
The Geography of Vulnerability in New Orleans
• The revelations of inadequate response to the hurricane’s aftermath are not just about
failures in emergency response at the local, state and feder