Risk-related vulnerability

The frequency and intensity of natural and technological hazards together with the vulnerability of the affected elements and society are responsible for the negative repercussions of that hazard.  Consequently, the assessment of vulnerability is critical to the reduction of such consequences and associated risk.

To better understand the concept of vulnerability, it is necessary to acknowledge that it is currently used by various disciplines (e.g. structural, economic, institutional or social) that tend to emphasize different factors in their methodology for measuring vulnerability. For example, social scientists often consider vulnerability as indicative of those socio-economic factors that influence society’s capability to cope with stress or negative changes (e.g. occupation, education, income, wealth and where someone lives).

On the other hand, natural scientists tend to view vulnerability as the likely extent of loss after exposure of at-risk elements to a hazardous phenomenon of a given magnitude and frequency. Such an approach allocates a particular emphasis to the susceptibility (e.g. exposure, sensitivity) of physical elements to hazardous processes. In this case, an appropriate definition of vulnerability may refer to ‘The susceptibility of life, property, or the environment if a specified dangerous event were to occur’.

Within the disaster risk community, risk is defined by the exposure to a hazard and vulnerability, which represents the relationship between hazard severity and the degree of damage caused to the exposed element. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) defines vulnerability as “the characteristics and circumstances of a community, system or asset that makes it susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard”; this definition considers vulnerability as an established state generated by characteristics of the at-risk elements.  Within the climate change community, vulnerability has been given greater importance, being defined as a function of exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity.

More recently, efforts by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have resulted in a more mutual and collective understanding of the vulnerability concept. In this context, the 2014 Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC refers to vulnerability as “an expression of the propensity or predisposition to be adversely affected. Such predisposition constitutes an internal characteristic of the affected elements (or societies) and includes the concepts to cope with, resist, and recover and the lack of capacity to cope and adapt to the adverse effects of a physical event.”

N.B. the above introduction to the concept of risk-related vulnerability has been developed based on published material, in particular:

Rizzo, A., Vandelli, V., Micallef , A.S., Buhagiar, G., Soldati, M., 2020. Coastal vulnerability assessment along the north-eastern sector of Gozo Island (Malta, Mediterranean Sea). Water 2020, 12(5), 1405;

Fuchs, S., Birkmann, J. & Glade, T. Vulnerability assessment in natural hazard and risk analysis: current approaches and future challenges. Nat Hazards 64, 1969–1975 (2012).

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