Healthy, productive and protective environments, social systems and economies are the basis of sustainable development and human welfare. The environment is the source of all our raw materials and absorbs the pollution from our activities. In turn, whilst going about our daily business (social and economic) we use the environment and convert its resources and natural services into those that directly support us. The problem is that all of these systems can be damaged, overloaded, or prevented from meeting our needs. By our own choices we can to a large extent determine our own quality of life, the condition of our lands and opportunities for future generations. Vulnerability is a new way of looking at an age-old problem. Instead of focusing just on what has been going wrong in the past and the effects of hazards, vulnerability gives us the opportunity to focus on getting things right for the future. As a future-focused approach, vulnerability is a way of using strengths and strategically improving weaknesses. Vulnerability refers to the tendency of something to be damaged. The opposite of this is resilience, or the ability to resist and/or recover from damage. When we talk about vulnerability, we are automatically also talking about resilience because the two are opposite sides of a single coin. That is, something is vulnerable to the extent that it is not resilient, and visa versa. The idea of vulnerability/resilience applies equally well to physical entities (people, ecosystems, coastlines) and to abstract concepts (social systems, economic systems, countries). The factors that cause the damage are known as hazards, each of which will be associated with some level of risk, or likelihood of occurring.
Why focus on Vulnerability?
The vulnerability of our environmental, social and economic systems is made up of more than just the risk of disasters and good or bad management. It is not just about climate change, or globalisation, or trade agreements. It must also include an understanding of how well any system (environmental, social and economic) can cope with any hazards that may come its way and that might harm it. It would be impossible to work towards good quality of life and growth for countries under a sustainable development model if no account were made of the damage that can occur from internal and outside influences.
For development to be sustainable, we clearly need to learn to manage our vulnerabilities. We need to be able to understand and/or manage hazards, natural resilience and acquired resilience. This understanding for the first time opens up opportunities for improving our overall vulnerability because it forces us to examine the problem from all angles, instead of just focusing on the risk of disasters. Vulnerability management is emerging as a critical part of any sustainable development strategy.
The interesting thing about vulnerability is that it can be examined at different levels for different issues. That is, it can be used to look at a single issue, or to assess a complex entity such as a country.