Natural disasters and community resilience: A framework for support

CFCA Paper No. 3 – May 2012

On vulnerability

Before beginning the process of measuring a community's resilience, it is imperative to understand and assess the risks and vulnerabilities inherent in any complex nexus of people, natural systems and built environments. Indeed, vulnerability is an inevitable component of any community (Cutter et al., 2008; Fenton, Kelly, Vella, & Innes, 2007; Maguire & Cartwright, 2008), and arises from the intersection of human systems, the built environment and the natural environment (Fenton et al., 2007; Maguire & Cartwright, 2008). In the literature on community resilience, vulnerability is discussed in the following terms:

  • Physical and environmental vulnerability: The most obvious factor contributing to community vulnerability is proximity to hazard-prone areas. The risk of fire, flood, drought, cyclone, earthquake and the subsequent disruption of potential contamination sites (e.g., sewerage treatment facilities and chemical plants and factories) increase the physical and environmental vulnerability of communities.
  • Vulnerable infrastructure: The vulnerability of the built environment is related to location and proximity to sources of environmental hazards or threats. Poorly constructed buildings and infrastructure, including roads and other transportation channels, industrial and commercial developments, and certain types of housing (e.g., manufactured homes, caravans) intensify the vulnerability of the built environment in communities (Borden, Schmidtlein, Emrich, Piegorsch, & Cutter, 2007).
  • Economic vulnerability: Communities reliant on a single economic sector for their livelihood (e.g., tourism, agriculture) are more vulnerable than those with more diversified economies (Cutter et al., 2008). These vulnerable communities will usually experience greater difficulty recovering from a disaster.
  • Social vulnerability: There are certain demographic and social characteristics that make some communities more vulnerable than others. Social vulnerability arises from inequality, which in turn affects access to resources and information (Cutter et al., 2008). Social indicators of increased vulnerability include: age (e.g., the elderly and the very young), gender (e.g., women are more likely to be vulnerable than men), socioeconomic status (e.g., the poorer members of the community are more vulnerable), populations with special needs (e.g., physically or intellectually disabled groups, homeless people), culturally and linguistically diverse populations, and Indigenous populations (Cutter et al., 2008; Tierney, 2006; Tierney, Lindell, & Perry, 2001).

The resilience approach taken in this paper acknowledges that communities and the systems within them (e.g., families, organisations, individuals, and ecosystems) possess aspects or components that render them vulnerable to specific changes. However, the resilience approach shifts the focus to processes and resources that enable communities to overcome these intrinsic vulnerabilities and adapt positively when faced with challenges.