Measuring Vulnerability to Natural Hazards — New Book Presents Innovative Approaches for Disaster Resilient Societies

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  • 2014•02•20     Bonn

    In January 2010 an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 devastated Haiti, causing 230,000 fatalities and widespread damage and destruction to vital infrastructure. Just over a year later, in February 2011, an earthquake of magnitude 6.3 hit New Zealand, resulting in only 187 fatalities. How can this huge discrepancy in loss of life 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 have extreme impacts or not.

    A new book, Measuring Vulnerability to Natural Hazards: Towards Disaster Resilient Societies (second edition) edited by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change lead author Dr. Joern Birkmann of the UNU Institute for Environment and Human Security, explores potential methods to assess the vulnerability of societies, communities and infrastructure 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 compelling because 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 research community has primarily focused on the direct impacts of climate change on societies, new problem framing approaches also account for societal and socioeconomic changes. In this context vulnerability is a core concept that bridges different communities of scientists and practitioners, particularly in the fields of disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and development policy.

    The book addresses not only new concepts and theoretical approaches of disaster risk, vulnerability, adaptation and resilience, but it also provides important insights into different methods of assessing vulnerability and resilience, based on international, national and local case studies. The book is an important prerequisite for informed strategies for adaptation to extreme events and disaster risk reduction, especially considering that thorough assessments and indicator based monitoring tools are often required to secure funding support for adaptation and risk reduction.

    The book highlights practical examples of vulnerability assessment from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe ranging from global indexing projects (e.g. the World Risk Index) to local participatory self-assessment approaches. In doing so the volume demonstrates how these diverse approaches have been developed and the constraints and challenges they face.

    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. 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 by hazard events.

    This calls for a holistic approach when aiming to understand emerging risk due to changing climatic conditions and extreme events on the one hand and societal and socioeconomic 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 systems 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 authors call for a shift in perspective, from a focus on single or multiple natural hazards and extreme events, to improved assessment and reduction of societal vulnerabilities.

    The book provides important insights also for the upcoming world conferences and global negotiations on the post-Kyoto protocol, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Hyogo Framework for Action.

    For more information and to order the book, visit the book’s overview page on unu.edu.