In January 2010 an earthquake with a 7.0 magnitude devastated Haiti, causing 230 000 fatalities and widespread damage and destruction to vital infrastructure. Almost exactly a year later in February 2011 an earthquake with a 6.3 magnitude hit New Zealand, resulting in only 187 fatalities. How can this huge discrepancy in loss be explained? High vulnerability and low adaptive capacity to natural hazards and weather and climate related extreme events are crucial factors that decide whether an extreme event will translate into extreme impacts or not.
A new book, Measuring vulnerability to natural disasters (2nd edition) edited by IPCC lead author Dr. Joern Birkmann from UNU-EHS, explores potential methods to assess the vulnerability of societies, infrastructures and communities before extreme events happen. The volume brings together the expertise and experience of over 35 leading experts in disaster risk reduction and vulnerability assessment.
The book is particularly interesting, since it deals with the important shifts in thinking within the last 20 years in disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. While in the past the climate change community has primarily focused on the direct impacts of climate change on societies, the modified problem framing also accounts for societal and socio-economic changes alike. In this context vulnerability is a core concept that bridges different communities of scientists and practitioners, particularly in the fields of:
The volume addresses not only new concepts and theoretical approaches of disaster risk, vulnerability, adaptation and resilience, but it also provides important insights into different methods on how to assess vulnerability and resilience – based on various international, national and local case studies. Measuring Vulnerability will be an important prerequisite for informed strategies for adaptation to extreme events and disaster risk reduction. These assessments and indicator based monitoring tools are also often required for getting larger funding support for adaptation and risk reduction.
Practical examples of vulnerability assessment from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe provide important insights on how different assessment approaches were developed and which constraints and challenges they face. The methods and approaches presented range from global indexing projects (e.g. the World Risk Index) to local participatory self-assessment approaches.
In most cases, the research shows that assessing vulnerability, coping and adaptive capacities of communities cannot be done by focusing on past losses or economic losses alone, but rather economic, social, demographic, cultural, institutional and environmental factors have to be taken into account in order to better understand the potential predisposition of countries and people to be negatively affected in case a hazard event occurs.
That means a holistic approach is needed when aiming to understand emerging risk due to changing climatic conditions and extreme events on the one hand and societal and socio-economic changes on the other.
The research also finds that crises can function as a catalyst for change and innovation. In some cases, post disaster recovery can provide an opportunity to reduce disaster risk and improve adaptive capacity. For instance, tropical cyclones have always ravaged communities in Bangladesh, however successive improvements in cyclone early warning system and evacuation strategies as well as the construction of special shelters have significantly increased human security and reduced vulnerability.
The book showcases the work of these researchers to reveal that society is not powerless in the face of extreme weather events and natural hazards. In this regard, the book calls for a shift in the perspective, from the focus on single or multiple natural hazards and extreme events, towards the improved assessment and reduction of societal vulnerabilities.
The book provides important insights also for the upcoming world conferences and global negotiations about the post-Kyoto protocol, the sustainable development goals and the Hyogo Framework for Action.
For more information and to order the book, please click here.