Monday, August 23, 2010

Floods in Pakistan: Vulnerability

Disasters always seem to affect the most vulnerable people. Images flashed across the television screen always seem to be of the poor struggling with their few possessions to escape the onslaught of the physical events. But what is vulnerability? As you might expect it is not as simple as a single definition. Vulnerability is a complex term and only one of several that are essential to understanding how people respond and are able to respond to a hazard and a disaster (I will discuss the term more systematically in a later blog, only the bare bones of what I think is essential to this situation will be outlined here).

Vulnerability could be simply put as the potential for loss of life or property in the face of environmental hazards. The susceptibility for loss may be another useful phrase. Associated with vulnerability are other terms, often ‘borrowed’ from subjects such as ecology and used, with the various usual inappropriate translations, in geographic research. Adaptation refers to the ability of the actants in the socio-ecological system to find strategies to adapt to the hazard or disaster. Resistance is the ability of the actants to resist the impact of the hazard or disaster. Resilience is the ability of the system to absorb, self-organise, learn and adapt to the hazard or disaster. A useful resource for vulnerability can be found at the web pages of Neil Adger ( and at the Resilience Alliance website ( a site looking at research into resilience of socio-ecological systems and sustainability.

An important question, and a very geographic one, is at what scale can you apply these concepts? What scale is appropriate? The individual can be viewed as an important unit, but the individual usually operates within the context of a family or household, so is this a more appropriate unit for analysing vulnerability and resilience? What about larger entities such as communities and governments? As you change the unit of analysis would you expect the different units to have the same type of vulnerability, the same ability to resist or the same characteristics of resilience? Once these different spatial entities interact, such as the provision of aid by the government to individuals, does this cross scalar interaction affect vulnerability and resilience? In other words, what seems like a simple thing is very complex to unravel in detail.
Another issue is at what point it is possible to identify a vulnerable people? Before a disaster is it possible to identify characteristics at an appropriate scale of a vulnerable individual, household, community or region? During a disaster are the characteristics that define vulnerable the same or do they alter and so does who or what is vulnerable alter? Likewise after the hazard do these characteristics change again? What I hope is becoming clearer is that vulnerability, resistance and resilience vary as the hazard or disaster varies and are in a dynamic relationships with the disaster as it unfolds.

So how can this set of concepts be used to analyse the floods in Pakistan? Taking into account that I have as much sketchy and incomplete information as everyone else that relies on selective media reports and selective web for information about the floods could I suggest the following. The static aspects of vulnerability, before the disaster strikes, could be analysed by looking at access to resources and power of different parts of the population. The poor, to generalize, have little access to resources such as funds for crops, for irrigations and the like. They also have little access to political power to ensure the infrastructure serves their needs. They also have little access to resources to escape the disaster (anyone else think it’s odd that media can hire helicopters and transport into and out of disaster zones but the victims can’t?!) Identifying low income areas may provide an indication of populations likely to be unable to cope with a disaster, a sudden disruption to their daily lives. Households not integrated into a wider community may not be able to resist a disaster as well as households who are well bounded within a wider community. This property, however, may not become clear until during or after a disaster, until the community responses to the event (indeed the community may be defiendby hte disaster such as the development of a community within refugee camps).

There is also a dynamic aspect to vulnerability; the manner in which relationships are organised and the manner in which they change through normal times and then during and after a disaster. Such flows could include the transport infrastructure; a key aspect that appears to have failed during this disaster and which has dramatically affected the ability of the institution of government to maintain an effective relationship with vulnerable groups. At a local level, however, is the transport infrastructure that remains intact sufficient for the local population to move to safety and then initiate community based activities that represent resilience at that level?

But vulnerability doesn’t need to be confirmed to the lowest entity you can identify and, as you might expect, the nature of that vulnerability might change as you change your scale or entity of analysis. The Pakistani government, for example, has come in for criticism in its handling of the disaster but you could argue it is vulnerable as well. It has an inadequate infrastructure for dealing with such a wide ranging disaster (although it does beg the question does any country have an adequate infrastructure for coping with such a spatially disperse disaster). The institutions of government respond using particular procedures, mechanisms and pathways that may be vulnerable if specific aspects of the infrastructure are lost. In addition, Pakistan could be viewed as having a lack of access to appropriate resources, both financial and material, (e.g. lack of reserve funds, lack of helicopters) to respond to the disaster. The country itself could be viewed as vulnerable because of its relative developing status compared to other countries and the uneven development, and so uneven access to resources and power, within the country.

There may be no answers in the above analysis but I do hope it points out some interesting and important questions about what vulnerability may mean and how that meaning changes as the nature of the disaster unfolds and, importantly, as the resilience of different the communities emerges.

Donations for the onoging disaster can be made within the UK via the Disaster Emergency Committee, DEC, go to or to Islamic Relief UK

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