School, El Asnam, Algeria

Vulnerability and disasters

“The vulnerable state of populations and settlements is as much a contributor to the cause of ‘natural’ disasters as are the physical phenomena with which they are associated. What are called ‘earthquakes’ and ‘hurricanes’ are the natural forces; what are seen afterwards are the results of the impact of those forces on human settlements (where) damage destruction and death are conditioned by the decisions and actions of society over time.”

James Lewis Development in Disaster-prone Places: Studies of Vulnerability 1999 pp4-5.
IT Publications (Practical Action). London.

Many places may have an inherent vulnerability to hazards, such as earthquakes or tropical cyclones, and occupants of those places, communities or buildings, knowingly or unknowingly inherit and become subject to the vulnerability of the place which they inhabit (for example see Islands).

What is done, or not done, to a place by people in distant or recent pasts, can come to affect not only its occupiers at that time, but also those that follow, recurrently for many years and in perpetuity (Lewis & Kelman ACME 2010 p194).

In the same way, external pressures upon people may contribute to their susceptability, and consequently to their vulnerability: their exploitation and that of land, community displacement, social exclusion, and corruption in governmental and commercial procurement and construction, lead to impoverishment and poverty and are known examples of causes of people’s vulnerability.

Disasters, therefore, are rarely “natural” - they are created by humankind. Most people’s exposure to disaster risk has been created by others, in recent times and in historical pasts.

For millions of people there are few options for where, in what, or how they live, having been forced or obliged to occupy places most exposed to floods or landslides, on land not required for commercial agriculture or other purposes, or in conditions so overcrowded and without basic utilities that self improvement has become impossible.

The conditions in which a majority of people live are created by the actions and inactions of others, made in their own political and commercial self-interest. These actions and inactions and the authorities that issue or condone them, invariably have become institutionalised, “permanently” ingrained and “every day”.

Domination and control have become a significant negative characteristic of everyday life because the power to effect change remains with those who benefit, not with those who suffer the consequences of oppression, discrimination, exploitation - and consequent poverty and vulnerability.

If we want to reduce the impact of disasters and reduce disaster risk, we should limit and prevent such actions and inactions.

Examples of the causes of vulnerability in the 15 countries of Bangladesh, China, The Dominican Republic, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Martinique, Nepal, Pakistan, The Philippines, Tonga, Turkey, Tuvalu, the United kingdom and the USA and are described in:
The Creation of Cultures of Risk: Political and commercial decisions as causes of vulnerability for others An Anthology (James Lewis, 2008) and in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) versus Disaster Risk Creation (DRC), James Lewis & Ilan Kelman, 2012 (see publications below).

Climate change exacerbates all of these causative processes of vulnerability by its exposure to increased incidence and severity of known hazards and by the introduction of new or unfamiliar hazards.


  • The fluidity of risk: Variable vulnerabilities and uncertainties of behavioural response to natural and technological hazards.

    Disaster Prevention and Management
    Vol. 28, No. 5, pp. 636-648.
  • Disaster research helps

    The Observer, Sunday 10 September
    Guardian Newspapers, London
  • Four Resilience Boxes

    Routledge Handbook on DRR Including CCA
    Editor: Ilan Kelman
  • Cultures and contra-cultures: Social divisions and behavioural origins of vulnerabilities to disaster risk

    Chapter 8
    Cultures and Disasters: Understanding Cultural Framings in Disaster Risk Reduction
    Eds: Fred Krüger, Greg Bankoff, Terry Cannon, Benedikt Orlowski, Lisa Schipper
  • Processes of vulnerability in England? Place, poverty and susceptibility.

    Vol 23, No 5.
    Disaster Prevention and Management.
    Emerald Group Publishing.
    With Sarah A V Lewis.
  • The Blue Cover Reports: Natural Hazards Research Working Papers. Department of Geography, University of Toronto.

    Blue Cover Reports
  • The susceptibility of the vulnerable: Some realities reassessed

    Vol 23, No 1.
    Disaster Prevention and Management
    Emerald Group Publishing
  • Comment: Two Experiences of Community Driven Vulnerability Reduction: The Cases of Viet Nam and Burkina Faso (John Norton)

    Vol 34, No 1, Spring 2013, pp 61-62.
    Regional Development Dialogue (RDD).
    United Nations Centre for Regional Development, Nagoya, Japan.
  • Some realities of resilience: A case study of Wittenberge

    Disaster Prevention and Management
    Vol 22, No 1.
    Emerald Group Publishing
  • Creating disasters

    Vol XXXVII, No 6, July. pp 1, 10-13.
    Natural Hazards Observer
    Natural Hazards Center, Boulder, Colorado, USA
    With Ilan Kelman
  • The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) Versus Disaster Risk Creation (DRC).

    PLoS Currents Disasters.
    June 7.
    Public Library of Science, San Fransisco & Cambridge, UK.
    With Ilan Kelman
  • Is “fear itself” the only thing we have to fear?

    Explorations of psychology in perceptions of the vulnerability of others
    2011-3, pp 89-103.
    The Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies
    (with Ilan Kelman and Sarah A V Lewis).
  • Cultures, contra-cultures and vulnerabilities

    Cultures and Disasters Conference 2011
    Centre for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF)
    University of Bielefeld, Germany
  • Places, people and perpetuity: Community capacities in ecologies of catastrophe

    ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 9/2 pp191-220.
    (with Ilan Kelman)
  • Vulnerability, fear, denial and the social geography of risk

    Invited Paper delivered at the 2010 Annual Conference of the Disaster Management Institute of Southern Africa, Jeffrey’s Bay.
    Disaster Management Institute of Southern Africa
  • The artist as witness: Zainul Abedin and the Bengal Famine of 1943

    RADIX 18.1.09

  • The Creation of Cultures of Risk

    Political and commercial decisions as causes of vulnerability for others
    An Anthology. September
  • Continuum or Contiguum? Development for survival and vulnerability reduction

    Paper presented: Session VI: Disaster and Development - a vital connection
    5th ESA Conference Helsinki September
  • Development in Disaster-prone Places: Studies in Vulnerability

    IT Publications, London
    Electronic format forthcoming (Practical Action March 2013)

    Includes five case studies of vulnerability description and analysis:

    • Volcano in Tonga
    • Some perspectives on natural disaster vulnerability in Tonga
    • A multi-hazard history of Antigua
    • Vulnerability to a cyclone: Damage distribution in Sri Lanka
    • Change, and vulnerability to a natural hazard: Chiswell, Dorset.
  • Vulnerability reduction, Survival and Sustainability: What kind of Development ?

    Seminar: Civil Strife and Relief: Within the Context of the Continuum from Relief to Development
    Institute of Social Studies, The Hague
  • "Them and Us": Emergency planning and response in a social perspective

    Hazard Management and Emergency Planning: Perspectives in Britain
    Chapter 13 (pp195-202)
    (Parker, Dennis; Handmer, John: Eds) James & James
  • Vulnerability Reduction in Development for Human Settlements

    pp 93-118
    Proceedings of the Seminar "Training for Disaster Reduction II", Cairo, 1991
  • REPORT: British Consultants Bureau Conference on "Disaster Relief and Mitigation", London, 7 February 1990.

    Vol 14 Issue 2, pp 173-175. June.
  • REVIEW Coping with Natural Disastere: Local Health Personnel and the Community

    WHO Geneva, January-March, pp 48-49
    Medicine and War
    Frank Cass, London
  • Affordability and participation, need and vulnerability: Post-cyclone rehousing in Tonga

    Sixth Inter-schools Conference on Development
    Centre for Development Planning Studies University of Sheffield
  • Disasters, Homelessness and Reconstruction: Projections for vulnerability reduction

    Open House International 13/2
    Centre for Architectural Research and Development (CARDO), The University of Newcastle upon Tyne
  • Commentary: Report on Reports

    Washington DC July/August pp3-4.
    (White, Gilbert F: Ed)
  • Open Letter in response to Confronting Natural Disasters: An International Decade for Natural Hazard Reduction

    Natural Hazards Observer XII/4 p4 March
    University of Colorado
  • Risk, vulnerability and survival: Some post-Chernobyl implications for people, planning and civil defence

    Local Government Studies
    pp75-93 July/August
  • A Strategy for Social Self-reliance.

    Prevention and Containment of Large-scale Industrial Accidents.
    IFHP-IULA Symposium, Rotterdam. Proceedings Vol 2, pp95-97
  • Vulnerability and Development – and the development of vulnerability

    Development Studies Association Annual Conference
    University of Manchester.
  • Cook Islands Cyclone.

    Vol 5, No 1, April.
    Newsletter. Australian Overseas Disaster Response Organisation (AODRO)
    AODRO, Sydney.
  • The Environmental Interrelationships of Vulnerability

    On the Line Natural Hazards Observer
    IX/4 March
    University of Colorado
  • Project identification in hazardous environments

    AODRO Newsletter
    3/3 pp1-3 September
    Australian Overseas Disaster Response Organisation. Sydney.
  • Environmental Interpretation of Natural Disaster Vulnerability: The crucial need

    Guest Editorial The Environmentalist
    4 177-180
    Elsevier Sequoia Geneva
  • REPORT: The UNEP Natural Disasters Programme – An Evaluation: UNEP’s Crucial Role for Natural Disaster Mitigation

    United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
    Nairobi with archive access and Geneva
    Datum International
  • De integratie van een beleid voor rampenbestrijding in de ecologische problematiek (The ecological integration of disaster relief)

    ASPECTEN van internationale samenwerking 6
    Ministry of Foreign Affairs The Hague With English transcript.
  • The Ecology of Natural Disaster: Implications for Development Planners

    Project for the Analysis of Natural Disaster Vulnerability Centre for Development studies
    Working paper
    University of Bath
  • Disaster Vulnerability: Outer Concept versus Inner Condition

    Mass Emergencies 4/4
    Accepted for Mass Emergencies 4/4 prior to publisher's discontinuation of journal
  • Disasters and the Small Dwelling: Mitigation and Preparedness Measures

    Disasters 3/3
    pp 249 - 252
    Pergamon Press
  • Some aspects of disaster research

    Disasters 1/3
    pp 241-244
    Pergamon Press