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date: 30 April 2017

Economic Vulnerability and Resilience to Natural Hazards

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Natural Hazard Science. Please check back later for the full article.

About four decades ago, the discourse on disasters was largely about natural hazards and their characteristics. The failure of this approach to substantially explain disaster impacts led to a change in paradigm. This new paradigm places its emphasis on the influence of vulnerability or resilience on the resulting impacts of disaster—be they direct or indirect. Disasters triggered by natural hazards have since been perceived as unnatural occurrences brought about by a confluence of societal factors. Economic vulnerability and economic resilience, interacting with the hazard itself and the exposure of populations and economic systems, are considered critical determinants of the resulting disaster impacts.

The theoretical conceptualization and empirical measures of vulnerability and resilience remain, however, as subjects of contentions. Some argue that vulnerability and resilience are different expressions that refer to one and the same thing; the former is viewed from a negative standpoint; and the latter, from a positive standpoint. This implies that what measures one, measures the other. Other arguments consider resilience as one of the subcomponents of vulnerability, with the other subcomponents being one or some of the following: sensitivity, susceptibility, fragility, adaptive capacity, and coping capacity. However, what these subcomponents mean and cover are not clear-cut, thereby adding to the complexity of developing appropriate measurement tools.

An apparently dominant view is that, while vulnerability and resilience have similar underlying factors, they refer to different things. For instance, economic vulnerability and economic resilience are both shaped by the level of development, quality of development governance, and characteristics of development (widespread inequality, rapid and unplanned urbanization, etc.), yet vulnerability is considered a pre-disaster concern; resilience, a post-disaster concern. Here, vulnerability is taken as that component of disaster risk that explains the varying impacts on elements (people, assets, systems) that have the same level of exposure to a given hazard. Resilience is what enables the exposed elements to withstand, cope, and recover from disaster impacts. Thus, in terms of disaster risk reduction priorities, vulnerability is typically linked to prevention, preparedness, and mitigation; resilience, to rehabilitation, reconstruction, and recovery.

To date, the intensified application of economic theory resulted in important advances in concretizing the concepts of economic vulnerability and resilience, as well as in measuring them. Nonetheless, alongside these advances some refinements are needed, including the following: address the overlaps with other dimensions, for instance, to social vulnerability and resilience; apply a systematic method for identifying a plausible set of indicators to capture and measure the distinct economic vulnerability and resilience of each element in different contexts and circumstances; and translate the measures into tools for systematically identifying and prioritizing a set of policies and actions to reduce vulnerability and strengthen resilience.

Overall, the ultimate aim is for a sound and widely accepted set of concepts and measures that can be easily adjusted for practical application in different contexts (e.g., developed and developing countries), levels of assessment and governance (e.g., macro and micro; community, city, province, and country), hazard types (e.g., meteorological and geologic), and elements at risk.