Differential Human Vulnerability in Real-world Disasters

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18th May 2020 Psychology Reference this

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Using the examples of several varied real-world disasters, critically analyse the concept of differential human vulnerability

Globally, the negative influence of natural disasters is steadily increasing over the past decades in terms of the rising number of people affected and the growing proportion of economic losses. By the end of the twentieth century, many researchers began to realize that an unequal distribution of natural disaster effects different areas and population. The natural disasters that strike suddenly and violently are no longer the product of purely natural phenomenon caused by natural hazard events, but an outcome of a complex interaction between natural hazard events and human society (Boruff, 2009). So, the vulnerability that is the intrinsic characteristic of the hazards’ receptors, for example, infrastructure, economic activities and people, indicates the potential for loss. It is the root cause of the uneven distribution among destruction and has become an important component of affecting the natural disaster outcomes in many recent. There is considerable debate about the conceptualization and definition of vulnerability in the academic community (Khan & Salman, 2012). Scientists have typically focused on physical exposure to extreme events and their outcomes whereas social scientists have stressed other factors such as social structures and differential access to resources. In an effort to attain a better understanding of differential human vulnerability, elements of politics, social, economic and environmental factors will be considered.

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This essay will examine the social-economic and political factors that contributed to different disasters and destruction across the globe, thus analysing the concept of differential human vulnerability and will demonstrate that even though global awareness of natural disasters has increased, human vulnerability remains a highly substantial issue for many countries, due to the social-economic and political factors. For the purpose of this essay, differential human vulnerability will refer to the susceptibility of people, communities, and regions to natural, human made, or technological hazards (Kumpulainen, 2006). First, the essay will provide an analysis of the 2018 California Camp wildfires and how socioeconomic status played an important role in differentiating vulnerabilities. Secondly, it will review the 2010 Pakistan floods and explore the issues associated with livelihood vulnerabilities and how social class affected the population with varying severity. The third section will analyse typhoon Haiyan and how political factors inflated vulnerability across the region. The final section will conclude and summarise the main points of this essay.

Differential human vulnerability to environmental hazards results from a range of social, economic, historical, and political factors, all of which operate at multiple scales (Thomas et al., 2018). While fire prone areas in the US are more likely to be populated by higher income earners, this fact threatens to overshadow the millions of low-income individuals who also live in fire prone places but lack the resources to prepare or recover from fire (Davies et al., 2018). The 2018 Camp fire is California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire in history- it’s the 6th deadliest wildfire in US history and resulted in the death of 85 people. It is estimated to have cost USD 16.5 billion dollars in damage and would eventuate in the destruction of over 18000 buildings and 150 000 acres of land. The wildfire lasted 17 days and reduced the population of Paradise by 80%. In the case of the Camp Fire, differential access to resources determined how effectively people dealt with hazards and managed disasters (López-Marrero & Wisner, 2012).

Socioeconomic status played a substantial role in the differential human vulnerability across the California wildfires and was characterised by three metrics: persons below poverty level, the number of people (aged 16+) unemployed, and income per capita. The Camp Fire reinforces the concept of human vulnerability and the socially vulnerable being amidst the group who were most affected. The vulnerability for persons inside the fire prone area was dependent on factors such as socioeconomic status, as poorer households often could not afford to pay for fire mitigation services like the removal of trees and fire fuels and thus were likely to be more at risk of devastation. Whilst wealthier residents of the region were not inclined to remove trees of fire fuels from their property, they were also more likely to have access to fire insurance and the resources needed to extinguish any fires. Those of higher income were also more likely to be educated to a better standard which in turn improved their adaptive capacity. Accordingly, better educated individuals/households had better access to relevant information and enlarged social networks that facilitated an expeditious recovery and helped navigate the bureaucratic hurdles (Davies, Haugo, Robertson & Levin, 2018). Economically disadvantaged people were also dispositioned as typically they resided in housing of poor quality and had little/no access to transportation in times of need. The 2018 Camp Fire is strikingly significant, as traditional narrative of disasters is challenged from the accustomed story of poorer countries often being the most vulnerable. The Camp Fire distorts this view and introduces the idea of countries with substantial wealth and power also becoming threatened by natural disasters. Implementing the use of the human vulnerability framework is important as it allows for an analysis of the socioeconomic status and highlights those individuals who were impacted by the fire and are more likely to be affected by long lasting effects. The use of the framework is also an integral part of developing strategies to help prevent further disasters and mitigate any potential areas of risk, as the relevant bodies will be able to construct viable policy and structure to support it.

The 2010 Pakistan floods was a devastating disaster that not only had a disastrous effect on the Pakistani population but also was heavily destructive across large amounts of rural crops and vegetation. The floods in 2010 had an immediate consequence for all Pakistanis in all social levels but had a severe impact on the poor and vulnerable community. The damage assessment conducted by the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank for the Government of Pakistan estimated that the cost of recovery was between USD 8.74 billion and 10.85 billion (Khan & Salman, 2012). Agriculture production in Pakistan equates to 20 per cent of their GDP and is largely susceptible to the frequency of rainfall and the availability of the canal irrigation system. The performance of Pakistan’s economy, therefore, largely depends on the agricultural output which substantially fluctuates with weather conditions.

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The floods had a significantly disproportionate effect on the poorer Pakistan region as the vast majority of those areas (rural Sindh and southern Punjab) have very limited income and their livelihood was highly dependent on agriculture. The flooding caused immense strain on the infrastructure of Pakistan, with transportation across the country halted, communication lines cut off, food security in urban areas at risk and health and water controls in disarray. As well as urban Pakistan, more rural regions of the area felt a substantial amount of loss as the floods caused significant damage to standing crops and also deprived rural inhabitants of their assets and belongings, essentially pushing them deeper into poverty. The adaptive capacity of the Pakistan region also played a role in the human vulnerability of the region, as there was a wide range of age groups, education, income, employment and social groups (Qasim et al., 2017). Pakistan overall has an active working population that is likely to have decreased vulnerability to floods, but due to a large presence of disabled people and dependents, there is a heightened sense of human vulnerability which makes the population susceptible to violent flooding. Disability, coupled with factors such as poor housing and lower education levels amongst the region make the adaptive capacity of Pakistan low against disasters, but steadily improving as the government implements relevant infrastructure to support and manage disasters.

On the 8th of November 2013, the Philippines experienced one of the strongest typhoons to make landfall on record. Known locally as Yolanda and internationally as Haiyan, the typhoon destroyed a significant part of the Visayas region, abruptly ending over 6000 people’s lives and displacing a population the size of Los Angeles. The damage was so catastrophic, the governing body of the Philippines called upon the United Nations for assistance and several other international organisations offered their aid to help recover and strengthen the Filipino infrastructure. Exposure to typhoons in the Philippines is inescapably high as geography makes most coordinated efforts to reduce potential disaster almost redundant. As the coastal population continues to grow, so does the explicit danger and vulnerability attached to residing in poorly designed housing and overall degradation of the environment. This is horrifically clear, as the mortality rate over the last 50 years has shown no sign of decline (Doom, 2014)

Even though Haiyan was an example of nature’s extreme ferocity, experts claim that human factors played a major role in the widespread vulnerability which plagued the Philippines. A combination of poverty, badly designed housing and a dense population all contributed to make the Philippines an extremely vulnerable nation to the devastating effects of powerful Typhoons. Around 75 to 80 per cent of the devastation can be blamed on the human factor, according to University of Miami hurricane researcher, Brian McNoldy. The relevant government bodies in the Philippines failed to prepare any relevant form of damage mitigation strategies and did not communicate the severity and potential destruction of the typhoon. Due to the geography of the surrounding regions, the Philippines sits in the world’s most storm prone region and this, in turn, results in a high frequency of typhoons and disasters. McNoldy exclaims that extreme poverty and huge growth in population (most of which is located in vulnerable coastal areas), alongside a government that failed to properly prepare and develop protection measures against such disasters ultimately led to the horrific destruction that was typhoon Haiyan (AP, 2019).
The use of a differential human vulnerability framework and the factors that form vulnerability when discussing a countries susceptibility to various disasters is vital in preparing and preventing any more major disasters. The political, economic and social arrangements allow us to critically analyse a country’s preparedness in preventing such natural disasters. The 2018 Camp fire demonstrates how certain socioeconomic factors contribute to the management and containment of wildfires. Using a differential human vulnerability framework allows government bodies to develop strategies to help mitigate any potential areas of risk. The 2010 Pakistan floods exemplify how poorer countries are much more vulnerable to disasters. Economic circumstances for poorer regions played an important role in the disproportionate effect of the flooding and details like housing and income formed significant contributors to the widespread chaos caused by the floods, consequently depressing them further into poverty. The differential human vulnerability framework helped elucidate why Pakistan endured as much hardship and struggle for the poorer regions and how they can be properly managed in the future. Typhoon Haiyan illuminated what poor political and government guidance can ultimately facilitate and illustrates the importance of having appropriate structures in place for such natural disasters in order to prevent such widespread disaster and suffering. As well as negligence, socioeconomic factors abetted the destruction as much of the housing was located in risk prone areas and was not adequate to survive the havoc of Haiyan. Conclusively, a critical analysis of the differential human vulnerability helps demonstrate and clarify a country’s susceptibility to natural disasters and is necessary for understanding the various weak points of different considerations such as the social, political and economic aspects of natural disasters.


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