Vulnerability Assessment, Risk Management and Adaptive Planning

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  • The Vulnerability Assessment, Risk Management and Adaptive Planning (VARMAP) Programme is designed to advance the exchange of new concepts and the further development of tools to assess existing vulnerability patterns and risks. Moreover, it includes development pathways and their effect on vulnerability, risk and the adaptive capacities of societies exposed to natural hazards and climate change. Sharing new methods and tools for assessing and evaluating vulnerability, adaptive capacity and risk is essential to bridging the gap between different research communities. To this end, annual meetings of the UNU Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) Expert Working Group on Measuring Vulnerability, as well as programme contributions to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), will provide an important platform for this exchange. Additionally, key concepts such as transformation and development pathways will be further enhanced — for example, in the new European Commission Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development project emBRACE. The VARMAP Programme will also contribute to advancing specific strategies for vulnerability reduction in urban areas, such as those related to governance and critical infrastructures.


    The programme is part of the scientific discussions with the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI-ACIAR) regarding the creation of a twinning institute. Activities will also encompass the development of joint research proposals.

    Focal Point

    The programme is managed by Dr. Jörn Birkmann.


    The identification and assessment of vulnerability and risk is one of the two core research areas of UNU-EHS. These assessments and information about drivers of change and transformation are key for resilience strategies and climate change adaptation, as well as for building resilience to natural hazards and extreme events. New challenges are linked to the identification of dynamics in vulnerability and risk (scenario development) in terms of development pathways, specifically in view of the effects of transformation. Additionally, tools for the evaluation of specific risk reduction and adaptation measures are crucial for decision-making processes in this area (e.g., disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and sustainable urban development).


    Through basic and applied research in cooperation with high-level experts and practitioners, the programme addresses the problems and challenges outlined above. Particularly, the UNU-EHS Expert Working Group provides a platform and strategic partnership to exchange and further enhance concepts around vulnerability and risk assessment, disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. In this context, various UN agencies and UNU institutes are involved. Additionally, the scientific exchange and cooperation within the development of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report provides means to assess the global expertise regarding issues of new risks and vulnerability, climate change, adaptation and sustainable futures in close cooperation with more than 200 high level scientists. Moreover, the projects in and the scientific exchange with various countries — such as Egypt, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Indonesia, Peru and Germany — involve practitioners, policymakers and governmental organizations at different scales that request respective research and scientific support. The applicability and usefulness of the basic and applied research is strengthened through the active involvement of practitioners and local communities at risk. The academic staff working within these projects is continuously involved in exchanges with other PhD students and supervisors through PhD seminars, workshops and conferences.


    With regard to gender composition, five of 13 section members are female at the present time. The gender issue is an important element that is addressed within vulnerability assessments and in preparedness strategies, such as in the context of early warning and evacuation.

    Target Audience

    The beneficiaries of the programme are various stakeholders, international, national and local governments, authorities and organizations. The research contributes to international and national guidelines on vulnerability and risk reduction and also promotes a new generation of scientists through PhD programmes and new courses at the university level — e.g., part of the Joint Master’s Programme that begins in 2012. The UN system also benefits as the conceptual and practical knowledge generated is shared within various expert groups in which members of the programme are involved, such as UN/ISDR, WHO and IPCC.

    Intended Impact

    Impact: Influencing policymaking at the national level
    Target: The programme will strengthen the capacities of national governments and agencies to identify and reduce vulnerabilities and risks related to natural hazards and climate change. This process also encompasses the promotion of a shift in thinking from hazard quantification and static vulnerability and risk assessment to the understanding of dynamics in vulnerability and risks, its drivers and development pathways. This understanding of the dynamics and trends is an important basis for national policy makers to develop appropriate risk reduction and adaptation strategies.
    How: This will be achieved through the development of guidelines for vulnerability and risk reduction at the national level, and respective projects that deal with the identification of dynamics in vulnerability and risk. Additionally, the development of such tools and information systems will also account for end-user specific requirements — e.g., though close cooperation with national ministries and agencies involved in risk reduction, climate change adaptation and humanitarian assistance. Also specific information on how to strengthen adaptive spatial planning at the local and regional levels will be developed.

    Impact: Contribution to the work of civil society organizations
    Target: The programme aims to support civil society organizations in the field of risk and vulnerability reduction as well as climate change adaptation and sustainable urban development.
    How: This will be achieved through the integration of civil society organizations into applied research activities, for example in local case studies or in approaches that deal with vulnerability and risk identification and assessment, such as the WorldRiskIndex or local and sub-national approaches for evaluating risks and vulnerabilities as well as respective mitigation measures. Civil society organizations and local governments are an integral part of most of the projects in this programme.

    Impact: Rethink/revisit existing theories/policies
    Target: The programme contributes to questioning the dominant view that disasters solely encompass negative consequences. The research suggests that disasters in some cases also function as a catalyst of change and open windows of opportunity for change. Thus disasters might under certain circumstances encompass important turning points where past development patterns are challenged.
    How: Analysis of different scenarios (development pathways) for past or future — creeping or disastrous — developments in terms of socio-economic indicators.

    Impact: Furthering knowledge in an academic field
    Target: The programme contributes to a variety of new research themes linked to the topic of vulnerability, risk and adaptation — such as dynamics of vulnerability and risk, scenarios for vulnerability as well as development pathways. Special emphasis is given to the development of methodologies to improve the societal and institutional capacities of communities and countries at risk to deal with environmental and socio-economic changes.
    How: This knowledge will be developed within the framework of the different research and training activities of the programme and of UNU-EHS, such as the joint master of science programme with the University of Bonn. This knowledge will be disseminated through scientific publications, particularly peer-reviewed publications; guidelines; research reports; and presentations. Additionally, research results and new knowledge will be circulated by means of lectures, course material and e-learning material that is made available on the internet.

    Impact: Capacity development in developed/developing countries
    Target: The strengthening academic and institutional capacity in the South is a particular goal of the programme, especially in terms of the research projects and the exchange of expertise between institutions in the North and South.
    How: This will be achieved through integration of Southern partner universities and researchers into international research projects (e.g., in the project GITEWS — German-Indonesian Tsunami Early Warning System). The programme also encompasses an Expert Working Group on Measuring Vulnerability that serves as an important platform for exchange between scientists in the South and North. Furthermore, the programme will actively support joint publication with researchers and academics from the South in international peer-reviewed journals. Lastly, the programme’s research and teaching activities contribute to improving scientific and institutional capacity to deal more effectively with crises and disasters linked to natural hazards and climate change.

    Research Findings

    The conceptual and basic research of the programme will enhance the knowledge and theoretical understanding of concepts such as vulnerability, coping, adaptation, resilience and transformation. Additionally, new approaches and methods will be developed — e.g., in terms on how to conceptualize and capture dynamics and trends in different dimensions of vulnerability, such as institutional vulnerability, social vulnerability, cultural vulnerability. Furthermore, a method regarding the development of vulnerability scenarios should be established in cooperation with other experts in the context of the work for the IPCC. Lastly, research findings will also encompass teaching and e-learning material for practitioners at local and sub-national scales, such as guidelines, handbooks or e-learning tools.

    Policy Bridging

    The close cooperation with practitioners as well as the applied research projects that focus on improved management strategies for critical infrastructure or early warning are important pillars for better bridging the science and policy arena. Additionally, the active involvement of policy and decision-makers in research projects (such as KIBEX, ACRIMAS and emBRACE) ensures a high applicability of the results and a strong communication between researchers and decision-makers.

    Value Added

    The research of the programme will add value to the UN/UNU systems in terms of new knowledge generated for sustainable risk reduction and resilience building. Also a stronger understanding of the applicability and usefulness of disaster risk reduction tools for climate change adaptation is an important value added to international and national discussions on climate change adaptation to extreme events. Furthermore, the improvement of planning tools for sustainable urban development is an important value in an increasingly urbanized world.

    The added value offered by the programme is also visible in the international recognition of the work, for example through the invitation of our expertise into the IPCC or other expert groups. Moreover, 90 percent of the programme’s budget is generated through externally funded projects that are granted only for those project proposals that win the competition against other research bids. Finally, the UN benefits from such research through the documentation of new knowledge and the new tools derived within the research process.


    The research findings in this programme will be disseminated via publications in scientific journals, particularly peer-reviewed journals, research reports, material for training courses and material for the joint master of science programme with the University of Bonn and through contributions to international reports, such as the IPCC Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX) report and the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. Additionally, guidelines and policy briefs are developed to disseminate knowledge to practitioners and policymakers.

    Timeline/Programme Cycle

    The programme was established in 2004 and has undergone modifications, particularly in terms of the widening of the perspective to resilience, dynamics of vulnerability and risk and resilience as well as adaptation to extreme events. The programme has grown over the past years and encompasses today six externally funded research projects. It is likely that the number of projects and staffing will remain stable. To date, all staff members (except the head of the section) are hired on successfully acquired externally funded projects. Within the coming years, the programme will deliver — within its various projects — different types of scientific and policy relevant outputs, for example peer-reviewed publications, PhD research and guidelines for national and local agencies and teaching material for courses in higher education.


    The programme can be evaluated according to standard academic criteria for excellence, such as the number of successfully gained externally funded projects in competition with other international or national universities, the number of peer-reviewed scientific publications, the contributions into high level international expert groups, such as the IPCC SREX report and the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. Additionally, the quality and quantity of partner organizations and the partner network are indicators for the success of the programme. Furthermore, the number of academics who developed their PhD theses within the programme is an important indicator. The number of continuing education and training activities can be seen as an evaluation criterion for the successful establishment of the programme, particularly in cooperation with national universities.


    The dependency on externally and third-party funding remains a challenge for the programme. Furthermore, the varied requirements for funding, particularly the potential conflict between European Community and UN guidelines — e.g., auditing guidelines — are a challenge, since the European Community is a key funding agency for international research for institutions based in Europe. Also the transfer of staff from PSA contracts into positions is a challenge in terms of securing the funding.

    Expected Duration

    Programme start: 1 January 2004. Duration: ongoing

  • Activities within the Programme will involve cooperation between UNU Institute for Environment and Human Security and seven partners:

    • UNU Institute for Sustainability and Peace
    • UNU Maastricht Economic and Social Research and Training Institute on Innovation and Technology
    • UNU Vice Rectorate in Europe
    • UNU World Institute for Development Economics Research
    • UNESCO — Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission
    • United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
    • World Meteorological Organization
  • Title: No titles and dates can be given yet.
    Author(s): Programme members
    Publication/Output Type: Reviewed papers, PhD theses, conference contributions, reports, workshops, courses.
    Available at: Homepage or authors
    Date Published: 2012

  • Dr. Jakob Rhyner, Director
    United Nations University
    Institute for Environment and Human Security
    UN Campus, Platz der Vereinten Nationen 1
    53113 Bonn, Germany

    T: +49 228 815-0200
    F: +49 228 815-0299