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Vulnerability and Risk

What is Vulnerability

Vulnerability describes the characteristics and circumstances of a community, system or asset that make it susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard. There are many aspects of vulnerability, arising from various physical, social, economic, and environmental factors. Examples may include:

  • poor design and construction of buildings, 
  • inadequate protection of assets,
  • lack of public information and awareness,
  • limited official recognition of risks and preparedness measures, and
  • disregard for wise environmental management. 

Vulnerability varies significantly within a community and over time. This definition identifies vulnerability as a characteristic of the element of interest (community, system or asset) which is independent of its exposure. However, in common use the word is often used more broadly to include the element’s exposure.

The above explanation was taken from the United Nations (UN) International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) Terminology on Disaster Risk Reduction. Follow the link to look up other terminologies.

There are four (4) main types of vulnerability:

1. Physical Vulnerability may be determined by aspects such as population density levels, remoteness of a settlement, the site, design and materials used for critical infrastructure and for housing (UNISDR).

Example: Wooden homes are less likely to collapse in an earthquake, but are more vulnerable to fire.

2. Social Vulnerability refers to the inability of people, organizations and societies to withstand adverse impacts to hazards due to characteristics inherent in social interactions, institutions and systems of cultural values. It is linked to the level of well being of individuals, communities and society. It includes aspects related to levels of literacy and education, the existence of peace and security, access to basic human rights, systems of good governance, social equity, positive traditional values, customs and ideological beliefs and overall collective organizational systems (UNISDR).

Example: When flooding occurs some citizens, such as children, elderly and differently-able, may be unable to protect themselves or evacuate if necessary.

3. Economic Vulnerability. The level of vulnerability is highly dependent upon the economic status of individuals, communities and nations The poor are usually more vulnerable to disasters because they lack the resources to build sturdy structures and put other engineering measures in place to protect themselves from being negatively impacted by disasters. 

Example: Poorer families may live in squatter settlements because they cannot afford to live in safer (more expensive) areas.

4. Environmental Vulnerability. Natural resource depletion and resource degradation are key aspects of environmental vulnerability.

Example: Wetlands, such as the Caroni Swamp, are sensitive to increasing salinity from sea water, and pollution from stormwater runoff containing agricultural chemicals, eroded soils, etc.

What is Risk

Risk (or more specifically, disaster risk) is the potential disaster losses (in terms of lives, health status, livelihoods, assets and services) which could occur to a particular community or a society over some specified future time period. (Reference UNISDR Terminology)

It considers the probability of harmful consequences, or expected losses (deaths, injuries, property, livelihoods, economic activity disrupted or environmentally damaged) resulting from interactions between natural or human induced hazards and vulnerable conditions. 

Risk can be calculated using the following equation: Risk = Probability of Hazard x Degree of Vulnerability.

There are different ways of dealing with risk, such as:

Risk Acceptance: an informed decision to accept the possible consequences and likelihood of a particular risk.

Risk Avoidance: an informed decision to avoid involvement in activities leading to risk realization.

Risk Reduction refers to the application of appropriate techniques to reduce the likelihood of risk occurrence and its consequences.

Risk Transfer involves shifting of the burden of risk to another party. One of the most common forms of risk transfer is Insurance.

The Need for Assessments

Before steps can be taken to reduce risk and vulnerability, they must first be understood. Vulnerability assessments and risk analyses allow for the identification of areas of critical concern and help to guide mitigation efforts. There are a variety of methods by which these assessments can be conducted and organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have even developed their own tools to aid this process:

Threat/Vulnerability Assessments and Risk Analysis - Whole Building Design Guide

Risk and Vulnerability Assessment Tool

 Community Vulnerability Assessment Tool

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