What is vulnerability?

Vulnerability in this context can be defined as the diminished capacity of an individual or group to anticipate, cope with, resist and recover from the impact of a natural or man-made hazard. The concept is relative and dynamic. Vulnerability is most often associated with poverty, but it can also arise when people are isolated, insecure and defenceless in the face of risk, shock or stress.

People differ in their exposure to risk as a result of their social group, gender, ethnic or other identity, age and other factors. Vulnerability may also vary in its forms: poverty, for example, may mean that housing is unable to withstand an earthquake or a hurricane, or lack of preparedness may result in a slower response to a disaster, leading to greater loss of life or prolonged suffering.

The reverse side of the coin is capacity, which can be described as the resources available to individuals, households and communities to cope with a threat or to resist the impact of a hazard. Such resources can be physical or material, but they can also be found in the way a community is organized or in the skills or attributes of individuals and/or organizations in the community.

To determine people’s vulnerability, two questions need to be asked:

  • to what threat or hazard are they vulnerable?
  • what makes them vulnerable to that threat or hazard?

Counteracting vulnerability requires:

Physical, economic, social and political factors determine people’s level of vulnerability and the extent of their capacity to resist, cope with and recover from hazards. Clearly, poverty is a major contributor to vulnerability. Poor people are more likely to live and work in areas exposed to potential hazards, while they are less likely to have the resources to cope when a disaster strikes.

In richer countries, people usually have a greater capacity to resist the impact of a hazard. They tend to be better protected from hazards and have preparedness systems in place. Secure livelihoods and higher incomes increase resilience and enable people to recover more quickly from a hazard.

Disasters jeopardize development gains. Equally, development choices made by individuals, households, communities and governments increase or reduce the risk of disasters.

Examples of potentially vulnerable groups include:

  • displaced populations who leave their habitual residence in collectives, usually due to a sudden impact disaster, such as an earthquake or a flood, threat or conflict, as a coping mechanism and with the intent to return;
  • migrants who leave or flee their habitual residence to go to new places, usually abroad to seek better and safer perspectives;
  • returnees – former migrants or displaced people returning to their homes;
  • specific groups within the local population, such as marginalized, excluded or destitute people;
  • young children, pregnant and nursing women, unaccompanied children, widows, elderly people without family support, disabled persons.

In a disaster, women in general may be affected differently from men because of their social status, family responsibilities or reproductive role, but they are not necessarily vulnerable. They are also resourceful and resilient in a crisis and play a crucial role in recovery. Gender analysis can help to identify those women or girls who may be vulnerable and in what way.

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