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Responding to human vulnerability

The cumulative evidence for increasing human vulnerability to environmental change calls for a significant policy response and action on several fronts. Social responses have frequently focused on 'downstream' measures, designed to mitigate the hardships and cushion the impacts of environmental change or natural disaster after the event, rather than on interventions intended to modify basic driving forces ahead of a potential crisis. The onset of conditions that give rise to threats and vulnerability can often be gradual or inconspicuous. Donors are often ready to offer relief once a high-profile disaster such as a famine or flood has occurred but they are less likely to finance precautionary measures. 'Upstream' intervention is generally highly costeffective and should be given greater priority.

Levels and trends of vulnerability for different groups need to be assessed regularly as a basis for designing specific measures for vulnerability reduction and evaluating their impact. Governments need to assess and map national threats due to environmental change, particularly those that may be growing, and to institute early warning, mitigation and response measures to reduce the human and economic costs of disasters that are in part avoidable. Vulnerability should be recognized as a key indicator of the seriousness of environmental problems such as global warming (Adger and others 2001). It should be a focus for developing policies that seek to help people avoid, cope with or adapt to adverse effects of environmental change. Prior action to mitigate threats and to boost people's capacity to cope with or prepare for change makes more sense than remedial efforts after the event. The following sections discuss some possible approaches.