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What is vulnerability?

Vulnerability: what is vulnerability?
Family taking shelter in tent after Pakistan 2010 flood
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0

On 18-22 January 2005, at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction (WCDR) in Kobe, Hyogo, Japan, the proceedings from the conference defined vulnerability as:

‘the conditions determined by physical, social, economic, and environmental factors or processes, which increase the susceptibility of a community to the impact of hazards.’ (UN/ISDR 2004)

The WCDR conference played an important part in increasing the awareness and promote the strategic and systematic approach to address vulnerabilities and to help reduce risk to natural hazards. The WCDR conference in 2005 also marked the tenth anniversary of the Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake which struck on 17 January 1995. The relevancy of both the commemoration of the 1995 earthquake and the 2005 WCDR conference enabled worldwide humanitarian disaster practitioners to reflect on historical events to find improved solutions for the future.

As a result of previous incidents vulnerability has come to the forefront of disaster studies. This is demonstrated through statistics which summarise the casualties from disasters in developing countries versus the percentage of casualties in the developed world. Peduzzi et al. (2002) notes that developing countries represent 11% of the population exposed to hazards, however, they account for over 50% of fatalities associated with hazards.

Compare these figures with those collected from the developed world, which show that developed countries represent 15% of human exposure to hazards, but account only for 1.8% of all victims. These numbers clearly demonstrate that the rate of development of a country is linked to the vulnerability of that population to hazards (Peduzzi et al. 2009: 1149). Rich communities and countries are able to cope with hazards more efficiently and effectively because they can afford the technology and resources to reduce their vulnerability. Furthermore, even if a disaster damages property or assets, richer communities are more likely to have their possessions insured and are better able to continue with their jobs or take advantage of savings.

The onset of a disaster occurs when ‘a significant number of vulnerable people experience a hazard and suffer severe damage and/or damage to their livelihood system in such a way that recovery is unlikely without external aid’ (Wisner et al. 2004: 50). The Pressure And Release model (PAR) validates the relationship between risk, hazard and disaster onset, and supports the claims that ‘vulnerability is rooted in social processes’, which, in many cases, are not directly linked to the disaster event itself (Wisner et al. 2004).


Peduzzi, P., Dao, H., Herold, C., and Mouton, F. (2009) Assessing global exposure and vulnerability towards natural hazards: the Disaster Risk Index, Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences., 9, 1149-1159, [online] Available at: Accessed on [8 May 2019].

Peduzzi, P., Dao, H., and Herold, C. (2002) Global Risk And Vulnerability Index Trends per Year (GRAVITY), Phase II: Development, analysis and results. (2004). On-Line Conference: Priority Areas to Implement Disaster Risk Reduction. [online] Available at: Accessed on [8 May 2019].

Wisner, B., Blaikie, P.M., Cannon, T., Davis, I. (2004) At Risk. Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters, Routledge..

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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