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Levels of risk and associated human vulnerability change over time. In a resilient society, with appropriate interventions, recovery and mitigation can bring vulnerability back to a previous (baseline) level or reduce it to a lower level, but too fast a rate of change may exceed the capacity of the society to adapt. The long-term nature of environmental change may mean that potential future vulnerability is equally as important as present vulnerability. The capacity to adapt may be more important in determining human vulnerability in the long run than the ability to cope with present critical situations.

The degree and extent of vulnerability appears to be increasing because of a combination of such factors as the increasing impact of humans on the environment, reductions in the efficient functioning of ecosystems, the reduced ability of the environment to provide goods and services, growing and more spatially concentrated populations, and increasing human settlement in high risk areas. As human impact on the environment increases, so people's options decrease. Human vulnerability to environmental change thus increases, despite many instances of adequate coping capacity.

Assessments contribute to better-informed decisions on preparedness, mitigation, relief and rehabilitation activities but there is a lag between the time it takes to make such assessments and the optimal response time. There is a growing gap between rapid rates of environmental degradation and the slow pace of social response. This gap threatens to drain the environment of assets and options for future generations and to increase the costs of substitutes for missing resources (Kasperson and others 1999). High priority should therefore be given to rapid assessments of vulnerability and the design of initial protective responses, such as early warning systems, while longer-term remedial measures are put in place. Environmental restoration, with its potential to reduce vulnerability, will thus become an increasingly important component of sustainable development.

The complexity of the change process makes assessing and measuring human vulnerability to long-term or future environmental change highly speculative and it is hard to determine the kinds of investment that would most effectively deal with the threats in question. A better understanding of the interplay of the social and physical factors that determine human vulnerability needs to be developed to increase the ability to mitigate potentially harmful impacts that arise from environmental change. Cause-and-effect linkages need to be investigated. Systems modelling approaches and sensitivity analysis may help to determine the nature and timing of the most costeffective measures to anticipate threats where uncertainty and complex relationships are important.

Delaying a response to an environmental threat often stems from uncertainty, or a lack of knowledge. Improving the assessment process can help resolve this although, even when the risks are known, action may not follow. Nevertheless, regional studies suggest that the breakdown in response is more attributable to narrow government policies aimed solely at economic growth, coupled with a lack of political will, government willingness to tolerate damage in marginal areas and among vulnerable peoples, and widespread political corruption than to public apathy or lack of awareness (Kasperson and others 1999). These are all issues to be tackled.

In the recent past, responses to human vulnerability have progressed from single measures to address a single issue (such as controlling floods by building dykes) to the development of a mix of measures serving different purposes (multipurpose dam projects, warning systems, insurance, land use zoning, integrated river basin management). Today, issues are being visualized in the even broader context of sustainable development (Mitchell 2000). To support these new kinds of policy making, approaches need to be even further integrated to improve the chances of capturing all aspects of human vulnerability.

A framework for assessing risk

In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development called for the:

  • identification of critical threats to the survival, security or well-being of all or of a majority of people, globally and regionally;
  • assessment of the causes and likely human, economic and ecological consequences of those threats, with regular and public reporting of the findings;
  • provision of authoritative advice on what must be done to avoid, reduce, or adapt to these threats; and
  • provision of an additional source of advice to governments and intergovernmental organizations on policies and programmes to address these threats.

Since the report of the Commission was published, IPCC has set up a vulnerability task group, and the System for Analysis, Research and Training (START) and the Project on Critical Environmental Zones were initiated. These studies demonstrated that the coping capacity of countries differs considerably. IPCC claims that vulnerability and coping capacity are inversely related and socially differentiated.

Sources: WCED 1987, IPCC 1996

In an increasing number of areas, environmental damage may be irreversible, or restoration and the reduction in threat may require such a long time that accommodation must accompany any remedial measures. Enabling people to adapt to such situations, especially where change may accelerate in the future, should accompany short-term disaster prevention and management measures. Adaptation is vital where the impacts to which people are vulnerable appear inevitable.

Stakeholder participation is important in responding to human vulnerability, both to ensure a 'reality check' on coping capacity and to boost prospects of success by involving as many stakeholders as possible in implementing coping mechanisms (IFRC 1999). Stakeholders should review and strengthen their capabilities in the areas of preparedness and mitigation to increase coping capacities, and become involved in post-event examination of new initiatives that might reduce losses in the future. Communities with effective mitigation strategies could look into ways to help other populations at risk from similar threats. In all cases, assessments of community conditions should provide decision-makers with all the relevant information they need to make strategic decisions to counter vulnerability.

This consideration of human vulnerability has demonstrated that the continuing loss of environmental defences and accelerating global change are increasing threats to human well-being and are putting sustainable development at risk. The evidence suggests that many areas of the world are on trajectories that will lead them into crisis and that little time is left for creating effective responses if deteriorating situations are to be stabilized (Kasperson and others 1999). People are less and less the helpless victims of 'acts of God' and more and more the victims of 'acts of man'. But an increasing understanding of environmental processes and a growing capacity for early warning should help to identify threats and risks and react appropriately. There are now also better means of preventing and reducing harm to people and damage to economies and communities. An increased investment now in sound environmental management, community preparedness and vulnerability reduction will result in important savings in the future.