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.


  • Four Resilience Boxes

    Routledge Handbook on DRR Including CCA
    Editor: Ilan Kelman
  • Disaster research helps

    The Observer, Sunday 10 September
    Guardian Newspapers, London
  • 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
  • Island Vulnerability and Resilience: Combining Knowledges for Disaster Risk Reduction Including Climate Change Adaptation

    Chapter 7, pp 162-187
    Global Ecologies and the Environmental Humanities: Postcolonial Approaches
    Ilan Kelman, JC Gaillard, Jessica Mercer, James Lewis, Anthony Carrigan
  • Excuses flood in, but nothing on climate change

    The Guardian: Readers' letters.
    11 February.
    Guardian Newspapers Ltd.
  • 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
  • Some realities of resilience: A case study of Wittenberge

    Disaster Prevention and Management
    Vol 22, No 1.
    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.