AFRICA ENVIRONMENT OUTLOOK
Past, present and future perspectives

UNDERSTANDING HUMAN VULNERABILITY

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Flooded village in the Tana River valley, Kenya, Nairobi

Glynn Griffiths/Christian Aid/Still Pictures)

The environment is always in a state of flux and has, therefore, always impacted on people and the way they live. The history of humankind abounds with examples of environmental change which have affected civilizations, or which have provided lasting lessons as to how people have been impacted by such change.

In an early example, the pioneering organized foodproducing systems in the Nile Valley, under the civilization which ruled ancient Egypt for two and a half millennia from about 5 000 years ago, collapsed after its population peaked. A decline in food production was experienced due to environmental change as a result of massive flooding of the River Nile, which was catastrophic downstream. The river was also transformed over 500 years as heavy rains in the upper catchment area produced more vegetation, reducing erosion and sediment carried downstream. This led to the reduction of the floodplain, and quantities of plant foods declined. ‘The levels to which the human population had soared could not be sustained, and the pressure on resources mounted inexorably. Competition for food intensified, doubtless provoking conflict of which the massacre at Jebel Sahaba is probably an extreme example’ (Reader 1997).

A more recent example involves climate variability, an issue highlighted by the WCED, which reported that: ‘human overuse of land and prolonged drought threaten to turn the grasslands of Africa’s Sahel region into desert. No other region more tragically suffers the vicious cycle of poverty leading to environmental degradation, which leads in turn to even greater poverty’ (WCED 1987).

Millions of people in most parts of Africa are directly dependent on natural resources of the physical environment. They are, therefore, more vulnerable to environmental change than people in other regions of the world. It is important to note that people in all regions in the world are vulnerable in one way or another to environmental change, but that their coping capacity is different.

Africa’s biophysical and socio-economic characteristics, and the complexity of its cultural diversity, are some of the factors or driving forces which contribute to environmental change which, in turn, impacts on human vulnerability and security. The Africa region is characterized by diverse patterns of elevation, geology, climatic variability and vegetation types. Millions of people in most parts of Africa are directly dependent on natural resources of the physical environment. They are, therefore, more vulnerable to environmental change than people in other regions of the world. It is important to note that people in all regions in the world are vulnerable in one way or another to environmental change, but that their coping capacity is different. For example, in 1999, between two and three times as many disaster events were reported in the United States than in India or Bangladesh. However, there were 14 times more deaths in India and 34 times more deaths in Bangladesh than in the United States in that year. Equally surprising is the fact that lightning causes more deaths in an average year in the United States than do floods, forest fires or tornadoes.

Environmentally unsustainable and inappropriate practices, such as unsuitable agricultural methods, deforestation and water pollution, are the major humaninduced causes of vulnerability to environmental change. These are exacerbated by the impacts of climatic variations and interacting with the unique biophysical dynamics, thereby reducing coping capacities for most of the people who are already living in environmentally fragile areas.

Box 3.3 Concept of human security

In 1994, the UN Human Development Report introduced the concept of human security, predicating it on the dual notion of, on the one hand, safety from chronic threats of hunger, disease and repression and, on the other hand, protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions in daily life. Environmental insecurity became shorthand for the dimension of human insecurity induced by the combined effects of natural disasters and mismanaged environmental endowment.

Source: Geisler and de Sousa

For the purpose of this chapter, human vulnerability/security (see Box 3.3) is considered as a continuous variable, whereby vulnerability is the negative part of the continuum and security is the positive part. The two major constituent themes of human vulnerability are exposure to environmental hazards (or contingencies, shocks and stresses) and the coping capability of people which assures them of security.

People who have more capability to cope with extreme events or stresses are at lesser risk and are, therefore, more secure. The stresses to which an individual or household, or a broader social or geographic sub-region or region, are subjected are reflected in the state of helplessness or the lack of means to cope with risks, shocks, stresses or demands (Edralin undated). For example, many African countries in arid and semi-arid areas depend on food aid during some parts of the year. In 2000, for example, 8 million people in Ethiopia faced severe food shortages and had to depend on food aid (ELCA 2000). This was mainly due to adverse weather conditions and the impact upon food production.

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Figure 3.1: Human vulnerability/security continuum

Human vulnerability/security is a continuum which is characterized by situations which range from the undesirable state of vulnerability and its characteristics to the desirable state of security and its characteristics, as depicted in the Figure 3.1.

The human vulnerability/security continuum shows how vulnerability and security are defined in terms of coping capacity. Coping capacity increases as you move from the state of vulnerability towards security and vice versa, along the continuum. People, as individuals or as a community, will be at different stages of the vulnerability/security continuum depending on the socio-economic situation of each individual or group.

Individuals or groups within the vulnerability/ security continuum can be classified, in very simple terms, as falling under one of four categories along the gradations of the continuum:

Most African countries fall under the category of high risk and low coping capacity. This is because most countries in Africa over the past 30 years have been at high risk of, for example, floods, earthquakes, lava flows, fires, droughts, civil strife, and armed conflicts and wars, which have increased poverty, exacerbated serious health problems and resulted in hunger. These disasters have displaced populations across national borders and internally, contributing to further environmental degradation, and leading to more vulnerability and insecurity. The impacts have mostly affected the poor, who have low coping capacities.

The high risk and high coping capacity scenario is very rare in Africa. The United States falls under this scenario. Some areas of the United States are at high risk from earthquakes, for example, but impacts, particularly in terms of human casualties, are low. Only pockets of Africa fall under the low risk and low coping capacity. Where natural causes of risks are absent, human-induced changes will be present to make people vulnerable. In any circumstances in Africa for now, the scenario of low coping capacities exists. The low risk and high coping capacity scenario is the ideal.

Vulnerability is also a reflection of human capacity to cope with risks or shocks. Those who are least vulnerable cope the best and enjoy security, while the opposite applies to those households, communities or broader populations who are most vulnerable and who stand to lose the most from the effects of environmental change and other risks, shocks or stresses. Coping strategies have many dimensions, from the traditional to the scientific. Traditional communities in Africa have, for millennia, adapted to environmental change in different ways, including shifts in livelihood activities according to seasons and changes in the environment. They have also managed resources in a sustainable manner, adopting various management regimes to avoid overexploitation and to enhance their own food security (see Box 3.4).

Box 3.4 Cultural value of the environment

The fisherman who throws some of his catch into the sea after a fishing expedition in Ghana is expressing the responsibility which he has, as a member of the community, in ensuring that the fish population in the sea is not depleted. He, therefore, throws some of the live fish back into the sea so that they may continue to breed. And so each time he goes fishing, there will be fish in the sea.

At the same time, the fisherman is expressing gratitude to Bosompo, the divinity of the sea, for giving him some of his fish. If the fisherman does not give back some of his catch to Bosompo, he will feel that he has been negligent of an important cultural value—gratitude. The fisherman’s action is based on the proverb:‘Bosompo ankame wo nam a,wo nso wonkame no abia’—‘If the divinity of the sea does not begrudge you of his fish, you do not begrudge him of your catch.’

And so,while the fisherman is expressing gratitude in conformity with a cultural value dating from antiquity, he is also expressing a concern for the environment by ensuring that there continue to be fish in the ocean and by acknowledging that human beings are responsible for their environment.


Interventions addressing human vulnerability to environmental change must be translated into integrated responses which reflect the inter-sectoral nature and processes of the causes and states of vulnerability.

Human vulnerability/security is a complex phenomenon with many interacting dimensions with respect to environmental change, and the resulting human responses and ability to cope with the impacts of such change. For example, desertification and drought are directly linked to poverty, food and water shortages, conflict and mass migration. They increase the risk of fire, decrease the availability of fuel and limit access to health care. Health effects can include malnutrition, the failure of babies to develop properly, iron and Vitamin A deficiency, infections, blindness and anaemia (Diallo 2000). Women and children are particularly vulnerable. In Africa, 49 per cent of the deaths among children under 5 years of age are associated with malnutrition. A WHO estimate put the number of such deaths in Africa at 3.8 million in 1999 (WHO 2000). As water sources dry up, people are forced to use heavily polluted water, leading to severe epidemics. In particular, desertification and droughts can increase water-related diseases such as cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A and diarrhoeal diseases (Menne 2000).

Box 3.5 Coping capacities and sustainability

Coping capacities are critical within the concept of sustainability, which is defined as encompassing:

  • the ability to cope with and recover from shocks and stresses;
  • economic effectiveness, or the use of minimal inputs to generate a given amount of outputs; .
  • ecological integrity, ensuring that livelihood activities do not irreversibly degrade natural resources within a given ecosystem; and .
  • social equity, which suggests that promotion of livelihood opportunities for one group should not foreclose opportunities of other groups, either now or in the future.

(UNDP 1999b)

The dimensions of human vulnerability analysed in this chapter also include social and economic aspects, that is, poverty, food security, health, civil strife/conflicts, economic dimensions and governance. These complex, interacting dimensions of vulnerability to environmental change can act either as the constituent elements of vulnerability or, depending on the coping capacities (see Box 3.5) and resilience of an affected population, can result from, or be exacerbated by, environmental change. Interventions addressing human vulnerability to environmental change must be translated into integrated responses which reflect the inter-sectoral nature and processes of the causes and states of vulnerability. Because human security depends on the effectiveness of sustainable environmental management and the reduction of human vulnerability to environmental change and threats, responses aimed to address disasters should be quick, adequate and coordinated (UNDP 1994).

The poor are especially vulnerable to degradation of natural systems. Both the global and the local consequences of environmental damage directly affect poor people. Global concerns, such as changes in the Earth’s atmosphere, are critical to the livelihoods of poor people, and their consequences last longer than first assumed. For example, a rate of climate change is likely to cause widespread economic, social and environmental degradation over the next century. Therefore, the poorest people in Africa and other developing regions are certain to suffer the most due to failing harvests, growing water shortages and rising sea levels.