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Universidad Nacional de Colombia - Sede Manizales
Instituto de Estudios Ambientales
- IDEA -


Indicators for Disaster Risk Management
O P E R ATIO N ATN /JF-7 9 0 7 -R G

The Effectiveness of Current Tools for the Identification, Measurement,
Analysis and Synthesis of Vulnerability and Disaster Risk

Professor Ian Davis

Disaster Management Centre
Cranfield University

Manizales - Colombia
August 2003

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The Effectiveness of Current Tools for the Identification, Measurement,
Analysis and Synthesis of Vulnerability and Disaster Risk

Ian Davis

"A truly civilised society can be easily recognised as one that pays the greatest
attention to its most vulnerable citizens”

This initiative provides welcome evidence of a well known definition of ‘civilisation’ by an
anonymous author. It is this concern to reduce risks to vulnerable people that has motivated the
Inter American Development Bank to support this project. The initiative deserves widespread
support and attention since it has the potential to highlight the priority need for vulnerability
assessment and reduction. The project seeks to define both the opportunities of communities to
adapt or cope with threats as well as to define and explore the responsibilities of authorities to
their most vulnerable citizens. It is a source of encouragement that the Universidad Nacional de
Colombia Sede Manizales Instituto de Estudios Ambientales is committed to the successful
completion and application of this task. This paper will consider nine issues that relate to my
topic. After each section of the paper a ‘summary requirement’ will outline what needs to occur
in relation to a given issue to reduce vulnerability.


The consultants of this project have been asked to address a number of orienting questions. The
following have been selected from the overall list for consideration in this paper:

Character and Purpose:
• What is the purpose of evaluation?
• Will it be global, broad, non-specific?
• Should it be multidimensional evaluation?
• How can the results be used?
• Who can use the information?

• What aspects must be specified in order to evaluate vulnerability?
• What issues arise if the country is the unit of measurement?

Some of these questions will be addressed within the text of this paper, however to make certain
they are fully answered the concluding section of this paper will return to the above list.

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1. Using Precise, Accurate and Accessible Terminology

“The Department of International Development (DFID) should sponsor vulnerability
assessments in developing countries and use the information to help target work on
adaptation where vulnerability is greatest”

House of Commons, International Development Committee
Recommendation, No. 16. (2002)

This quotation is probably the first time the need for Vulnerability Assessments, and the
suggestion that the government should support such activities, has found its way into an official
publication of the UK government. As such it is an encouraging, (if overdue) indicator of a
concern of a donor government to promote the process of risk assessment to assist in targeting
disaster risk reduction initiatives.

The first contextual issue relates to terminology and it is worth noting the revealing word used by
the authors of the report quoted above, a Committee of Members of Parliament, who form the
International Committee on International Development. They regarded the ‘product’ of a
vulnerability assessment merely as ‘adaptation’ (probably by the community themselves), rather
than a fundamental ‘change’, perhaps even a ‘policy reversal’, (by those who placed them at
risk), such as moving them away from a threat to their lives and livelihoods. Effective
vulnerability and capacity assessments has to cover both the internal capacities of vulnerable
communities for adaptive behaviour as well as defining the responsibilities of authorities to create
and maintain safe conditions for their citizens who are ‘at risk’.

When considering the descriptions used in this field it is unfortunate that the current widespread
application of the term ‘vulnerability’ . This word is often used to describe a wide diversity of
situations, and it appears to be following in the same direction as a clutch of other overworked
development expressions such as ‘sustainable development’, ‘gender sensitive’, ‘livelihood
security’, ‘integrated development’, ‘stakeholder partnerships’ and ‘social capital’. Such
ubiquitous expressions or clichés now commonly appear throughout the literature to the point of
numbing the mind and devaluing each important concept. When this occurs there is a need to
consider precise meanings and find accurate alternative expressions to convey accurate messages
to a diversity of audiences.

A set of working definitions has been included in the Appendix 11: Glossary (page 34) of the
Working Document: ‘Indicators for Disaster Risk Management’. This provides a useful set of
definitions for the project, yet the problem remains of a lack of an agreed terminology in this
subject that is resulting in considerable confusion. I will cite some examples of varied meanings
or of differing interpretations.

The word ‘vulnerability’ is currently used to cover all sectors or elements that are at risk: such as
people, buildings, infrastructure, economies, livelihoods, the natural environment and

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ecosystems. However the authors of the forthcoming second edition of ‘At Risk, Peoples
Vulnerability to Natural Disasters’ confine the word ‘vulnerability’ specifically to people, and
use alternative expressions for other elements at risk:

‘Vulnerability’, as we use the word, only refers to people, not to buildings
(susceptible, unsafe), economies (fragile), nor unstable slopes (hazardous) or
regions of the earth’s surface (hazard prone).
(Wisner, et al 2003)

Within the community of people working in the disaster field a broad consensus has now
emerged that it is necessary to consider an assessment of vulnerability in parallel to a
measurement of capacity in all sectors. In recent years this process has being commonly called
Vulnerability /Capacity Assessment (VCA) This method has been used particularly to assess
social vulnerability, but it can be usefully extended to cover all key sectors: social, economic,
physical, environmental elements. To underline the various processes, and avoid future confusion
the name of VCA should ideally be replaced with a prefix of ‘social’ (so-VCA), ‘economic’ (ec-
VCA), ‘physical’ (ph-VCA) and ‘environmental’ (en-VCA) . In time, additional elements may
need to be added such as ‘political’ Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment (pol-VCA).

Another expression-‘exposure’ is also commonly used in current literature. Some authors use the
word interchangeably with ‘vulnerability’ while others use the word very differently in its strict
insurance meaning, referring to the level of financial exposure of a given individual or company.

The fourth example relates to the process of investigating vulnerability. This is sometimes
referred to as ‘vulnerability assessment’, in other contexts it is described as ‘vulnerability
evaluation’ ,‘vulnerability measurement’ , ‘vulnerability appraisal’, ‘vulnerability monitoring’
while other writers from a geographical background prefer the expression ‘vulnerability
mapping’ However, these descriptions contain subtle differences that can be usefully adopted
in appropriate contexts to convey specific meanings.

To reinforce this point numerous words are in common use to describe the strengths of a given
community and their property such as: ‘adaptation’, ‘capacity’, ‘resilience’, ‘capability’,
‘resources’, and ‘coping abilities’ or ‘coping mechanisms’. While these words are often used
interchangeably due to their similar meanings, the words have differing nuances based on
different associations which are very important and must not be lost. Thus the expressions:
‘resilience’ and ‘coping abilities’ can describe the same general process, but the two words can
convey different aspects of behaviour in a disaster situation where a given group may be able to
cope but may singularly lack resilience. In other situations groups may possess abundant
‘resources’ but be unable to ‘adapt’ or vice-versa.

Therefore, given such subtle distinctions it is not desirable to standardise methodologies with a
single word, such as ‘assessment’ or ‘capacity’, since this would eliminate important differences
of emphasis that are present in the alternative descriptions noted above. Thus the advice of Walt
Whitman remains valid in this field when he advised writers to always: ‘seek the correct word
for what you are attempting to say, not its second cousin’.

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Definition issues are clearly important, and it is essential throughout this well conceived project
to clarify terms and wherever possible to replace fashionable academic jargon with more precise
and specific terminology, even if this requires the use of fresh words and innovative descriptions.
Clarity of expression is essential given the needs of lay audiences of Government and NGO
officials, (often unaware of the fashions of current developmental literature), to clearly
understand these issues to the point of being able to apply them with confidence within their own
operational environment. Clear, precise meanings are also essential in the original text since well
received advice can be translated into various languages, with the serious risk of further
compounding errors of expression.

Summary Requirement, Issue 1.

Precise expressions with unambiguous meanings are needed to explain issues and intentions
given the widespread and often loose application of the term ‘vulnerability’. However, the
desire to simplify terminology to an agreed set of standard terms or expressions should be
strongly resisted since this ‘reductionism’ will eliminate vital and subtle descriptions that are
essential in both describing and defining the complexities of this subject.

2. Delivering Practical Outcomes

‘Every good idea needs a ‘home’ where it will belong and be nurtured’
David Oakley’s concern to ‘earth’ theoretical concerns into practical tools’ was expressed in a
Disaster Management Training Workshop in Oxford Polytechnic in 1985. His quote aptly
summarises my third contextual issue. This is to relate an increasingly abstract body of writing
on vulnerability to actions that need to be taken on the ground. A highly experienced colleague
who will remain anonymous wrote to me in relation to the Barcelona seminar to express his hope
for practical outcomes.
“ …as a side comment, noting the seeming preponderance of academic and/or
international institutional motivated participants, I also hope the Barcelona meeting does
not become too academic and devoid of practical reality or applications from the
standpoint of practitioners labouring under the strictures and uncertainties of the
realities attendant in all government bureaucracies. I hope that you may strive to
encourage a somewhat "de-intellectualized" and more appropriate context of application
than that otherwise suggested by my reading of the background paper for Barcelona
This is a genuine concern since much of the rapidly accumulating literature on
vulnerability, while being ‘useful’ in building a conceptual framework fails to become ‘usable’ in
defining the ‘who’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. This may be due to the concern
of authors to develop an academic discourse or it may derive from their isolation from direct

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contact with vulnerable communities or from a lack of ‘face to face’ contact with hard pressed
government officials who struggle with the mandate to reduce disaster risks. Thus, the focus of
this paper concerns the urgent need for practical advice based on well conducted research. This is
needed to determine who needs to do what, with what resources to identify, assess, implement
and reduce vulnerable conditions.
Summary Requirement, Issue 2.
The growth of theoretical writing has assisted in building a conceptual framework that is
needed in developing this subject area, but practical and usable outcomes are needed to ‘earth’
the theory into providing practical advice on effective actions to be taken by officials

3. Addressing a Critical Gap in Risk Assessment

There is a missing element in most processes of disaster risk identification: ‘Social Vulnerability
and Capacity Assessment’. My subjective impression of this omission comes from empirical
evidence gathered in undertaking consultancies and research in a number of widely different
contexts, (Tanzania, Japan, Ukraine, Mozambique, South Pacific, Mexico, Yemen, Caribbean,
China, Nepal and India) over the past fifteen years. (Aysan, Coburn, Davis,and Spence, 1989),
(Davis, 1994),

This fieldwork has directly or indirectly concerned the development of risk assessment and risk
reduction strategies. In addition I have regularly led training sessions on risk assessment in
disaster management training courses for senior Government Officials from 1981 until the
present and the senior officials on these courses confirm this lack of attention.

From these experiences a general awareness has grown of strictly limited, or of zero attention
being applied to Social Vulnerability Assessment by Governments and NGO’s. This conviction
echoes the theme of this paper, the limited development and application of accessible Social
Vulnerability tools and methodologies. These gaps have had serious consequences in major
omissions in the development of risk reduction strategies or measures, since without accurate
diagnosis sharply focused remedies will inevitably remain in short supply.

The following obstacles to the development and application of social vulnerability may apply:

• reliance on hazard mapping as the sum total of vulnerability assessment,
• the later arrival of social vulnerability studies as compared to say physical
• political sensitivities in exposing why people are exposed to vulnerable situations,

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• lack of social scientists to conduct assessments,
• over reliance on professional assessors,
• the lack of proven assessment tools and techniques,
• the lack of knowledge of the relative effectiveness of existing assessment tools.
• a lack of any agreed set of indicators of social vulnerability.
• a lack of understanding concerning ways to merge data from various aspects of
vulnerability (for example the link between studies of the vulnerability of building
structures and the vulnerability of building occupation)

This list is a subjective perception that needs to be replaced by solid evidence to confirm or reject
these opinions. The failure to undertake social vulnerability assessment may or may not derive
from these reasons, and each needs to be confirmed or rejected, or other constraints added. Then
these constraints need to be analysed and addressed before significant progress can be made.
Such gaps will only be closed by applied, interdisciplinary research to rigorously compare
assessment approaches across different hazard categories within different country and cultural
contexts in order to identify key variables that are needed relative to different hazards.

From these evaluations, it will be possible to identify elements of ‘best practice’. Such an
evidence-based approach is urgently needed to replace the ‘ad-hoc’ process that currently

Summary Requirement, Issue 3.

I f, as suggested, a major gap still exists in the development and application of Social
Vulnerability Assessment, then this must be closed and be fully incorporated into a range of
the key vulnerability factors, (physical, economic, environmental etc.)

4. Undertaking Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment (VCA)

As noted above there has yet to be any research to determine what tools and techniques are in
current use to identify, measure, analyse and synthesise data on social vulnerability and capacity.
Up to the present time there has not been any useful assessment of effectiveness or comparison
between approaches. The most widely adopted method is the IFRCS approach to Vulnerability
and Capacity Assessment (VCA) (IFRC 1999) (IFRC, 2002) this approach by the Red Cross was
originally developed by Mary Anderson and Peter Woodrow in the late 1980’s. (Anderson and
Woodrow, 1989) (Bethke, Good, and Thompson,1997)

The intrinsic value of the VCA approach lies in its focus on ‘unmet needs’ and thus provides
assisting groups with an understanding of their role that will build from the strength of local
capacities. But a note of caution is needed to recognize the inherent dangers in the development
of the VCA approach. This is the real possibility that cynical Government officials will become
aware of the strength of local capacities and thus give even less attention to addressing patterns of
vulnerability than would have been the case without such assessment.

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In addition, (or in combination with the above) various Participatory Appraisal Assessment
(PRA) approaches have been used when assessments have been undertaken at the community
level . (Bhatt, 1999) (Davis and Hall, 1999)

Summary Requirement, Issue 4.

A review is needed with comparative internationally based research to determine the present
state of social vulnerability and capacity assessment as a key element in mapping disaster risks.
What social vulnerability and capacity assessments processes have been completed, or are
being undertaken, with what results? How do these tools function to assess social vulnerability
and capacity in relation to varied hazards?

5. Linking Pre and Post Disaster Assessments

A further gap is the link between pre- and post-disaster assessments. For example, there are
obvious benefits in the same person or agency collecting, storing and analysing data from both
contexts. Pre-disaster Vulnerability - Capacity Assessments (VCA) are inevitably speculative,
comprising projections concerning likely damage and casualties, as well as the effectiveness of
local capacities. However, hard data from post-disaster needs and damage assessments will
always form the acid test of actual vulnerability and capacity. Both processes need to be merged
within an integrated ‘Disaster Management Information System’ (DMIS) Such a system may
appropriately adopt a Geographical Information System (GIS) as a highly appropriate system to
manage and synthesise the large quantities of spatial data that are a characteristic of such
assessments. Inevitably the problem of using GIS information technology is one of cost. Such
applications will have to become more affordable and accessible for use in poor developing
countries before this tool can begin to fulfil its massive potential.

A key issue to always remember is the need for those who undertake risk assessment and risk
management need to give much closer attention to the collection of accurate and consistent data.
Quality of data is likely to be far more important that the quantity of the information gathered.

Summary Requirement, Issue 5.

Systems are needed in all hazard-prone countries to link pre-disaster CVA data with post-
disaster needs and damage assessments into a single Disaster Management I nformation
System (DMIS) .

While effective tools are needed for data collection and analysis, they will only be as good as
the quality and consistency of the data being used.

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6. Expanding VCA to cover causal factors

Unless there is a rapid and radical expansion of VCA to move far beyond the cosmetics of
addressing unsafe conditions to addressing the reasons why they exist, there will be minimal
progress in risk reduction. This will require a wider vision among NGO leaders as well as
National Governments becoming centre stage in the process. They will need to sit down together
to work out how to undertake integrated assessments and operations.

However, as VCA moves towards causal factors, it will inevitably enter the political world and
challenge powerful political and commercial forces that will resist such enquiries. Thus, the
assessment of root causes will lead to the need for political advocacy to strengthen some policies
and reverse others.
Summary Requirement. Issue 6.
I f serious and sustained progress is to be made in reducing risks, Vulnerability and Capacity
Assessments will need to urgently move beyond descriptions of unsafe or insecure conditions to
an assessment of the root causes of such failures or weaknesses.

7. Who should undertake VCA?

A recurring objection to the implantation of Capacity and Vulnerability Assessments is the
regular observation of senior government officials that they do not have sufficient trained staff to
undertake assessments or to analyse them. The response to this constraint is to seek to de-
professionalise the assessment process though the use of skilled and experienced persons who
can be found in most communities. These may usefully include local teachers, agricultural
extensionists, religious leaders, midwives etc.

' The concept of vulnerability also helps in the promotion of the involvement of
community and citizen groups in the planning and development process, and
contributes to the goals of empowerment, democratization, and the advancement
of human rights.'
(White et al, 2001)

However, community involvement does not remove the need for leadership where experienced
professionals will train local assessors and develop templates for assessment.
Summary Requirement, Issue 7.
Local personnel, when trained can play highly effective roles in the assessment of capacities
and vulnerabilities. This localised process has the added value of creating greater awareness
within communities of the threats they face as well as their internal capacities to resist them.

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8. Developing Indicators. Benchmarks and Performance Targets

We live in an age where political leaders and senior officials are intoxicated with a desire to
create indicators in virtually every sector of life in order to secure targets or benchmarks to
measure progress or attainment. Thus we have a plethora of indicators of hospital efficiency,
success in solving crimes, levels or literacy, educational achievement etc. These indicators are
often to measure the work of others, rather than the performance of the originating or overseeing
agency and this is why indicators are often bitterly resented by those being measured, since they
are regarded as control measures that inhibit their own judgements and professional standards.
Also, attending to the demands of indicators can become a tedious ‘form filling’ chore, placing
demands on staff that they perceive to be a distraction from their main tasks.

At best good indicators can be used to help organisations to understand where they have reached
in their progress towards agreed goals. They can also assist them in planning ahead to see where
they need to move in a given time frame of say two or five years. A further value is in raising
awareness within organisations concerning the nature of work as well as making aims and
objectives well known. This function is particularly useful in organisations that suffer from high
levels of staff turnover.

However, the negative side is that indicators can easily over simplify highly complex variables
that crudely average out subtle variables and as a result may totally fail to recognise the essence
of a given issue. They are also heavily biased towards what can be easily measured, or in the
field of risk assessment biased towards the tangible data from the physical sciences and biased
against the less tangible data that is needed from the social sciences.

For example within the field of social vulnerability assessment it is relatively easy to develop
indicators of say the extent to which all high risk social groups have been identified and catered
for in disaster planning. Most societies with reasonably reliable census data and social services
records know roughly where their elderly population live as well as their level of impairment /
mobility. Such matters are fairly straight forward in developing vulnerability indicators.
However, in moving into the field of mental attitudes such as the perception of risk it is a much
harder task to establish reliable indicators given the intangible complexities of varied social
values attached to various risks as well as the wide range of individual perceptions.

A further problem is that of ‘scale’. To be of any practical value a given set of indicators need to
carefully designed so that they are appropriate for the area of concern. This brings us to the very
essence of disaster risk assessment where differing scales can relate to hazard, vulnerability,
capacity and potential loss.

In 1995, Professor Nick Ambraseys of Imperial College, London made the simple yet perceptive
observation in a Royal Society seminar:

‘while hazards may be mapped at an international scale, vulnerabilities are by their
nature localised’.

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Therefore it is possible, and essential for the seismologists and geo-physicists of a given country
to construct a seismic risk map of a given country with various indicators of seismic risk.
However, any attempt to undertake a similar study of say the vulnerability of the national
building stock, or of the vulnerability of communities, or of the vulnerabilities of micro
economies runs into the immediate problems of scale.

For example, one street of a town may be far more vulnerable that the next due to the age of
buildings. In one street the buildings were built before a seismic code was implemented while the
next street was built a decade later with an enhanced level of protection. Some communities may
be relatively stable with only minor changes over time as people arrive and depart, however, in
other areas, (often urban conurbations) it is not uncommon for there to be a 25 percent rate of
change per annum. Within the stable community there is a chance that social affiliations,
community activities as well as local leadership may have developed to the point that it is to be
regarded as a capacity, while in a turbulent, ever changing community this may be an outright
impossibility where people have no knowledge of their neighbours and there is an absence of any
community solidarity.

The same variables can apply to the local economy. Some regions may have a single economy
such as the development of a single cash crop, while in other locations the economy is made up
of thousands of micro-enterprises operating from small workshops. When each is considered
through the lens of disaster potential it may be possible for economists to gather some useful data
for the direct and indirect impact of say a flood or cyclone upon a unified single crop economy,
but the task may be impossible for any situation of multiple industries.

One group that have invested time and effort in the development of performance targets in
relation to the flood hazard is Middlesex University’s Flood Hazard Research Centre (FHRC).
The staff of this Centre have spent about twenty years gradually developing what they describe as
a ‘Modified criteria –development matrix’. This was initially applied to Flood Warning
Dissemination , but in a research project concerning Cyclone Warnings in Mauritius, Professor
Dennis Parker has adapted the flood model to Cyclone Warning Dissemination with a total of 27
indicators. (Parker and Budgen, 1999)

A five part development scale is used in this performance indicator matrix. This provides for five
stages of development from ‘Basic’ to ‘Optimum’. It may be useful to quote 1 of their 27
indicators for cyclone warnings to give an example of the way the indicators are described.

‘Public Education about cyclones and cyclone warnings:

STAGE 1 (Basic / Not functioning/ Rudimentary)
Non existent or virtually so

STAGE 2 (Below average)
Efforts to include material in the school curriculum are apparent, other methods
are ad hoc.

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STAGE 3 (Average)
Embedded in school curriculum, linked to some exposure in audio- visual and
printed media; un-evaluated; special needs and ethnic minorities not

STAGE 4 (Above average)
Embedded in school curriculum, linked to some exposure in audio- visual and
printed media; either un-evaluated or special needs and ethnic minorities not

STAGE 5 (Optimum, Advanced, (no identifiable shortcomings)
Integrated approach employing school and college curriculum; audio-visual and
printed media; effectiveness formally evaluated ; ethnic minority and special
needs groups given special attention.
(Parker and Budgen, 1999 pp 1.34-1.35)

If this structure is adopted for the development of indicators it is possible that the following could
apply for:

‘The Development of Disaster Risk Assessment’

STAGE 1 (Basic / Not functioning/ Rudimentary –almost total
shortcomings )
Non existent with the exception of basic hazard mapping

STAGE 2 (Below average- many shortcomings)
Hazard mapping as well as vulnerability assessment of building

STAGE 3 (Average - some shortcomings)
Hazard mapping as well as vulnerability assessment of all physical assets;
economic vulnerability assessment and social vulnerability /capacity assessment.

STAGE 4 (Above average-very few shortcomings)
Hazard mapping as well as vulnerability assessment of all physical assets;
economic vulnerability assessment and social vulnerability /capacity; attention
given to the assessment of risks to all critical facilities; loss estimation scenarios;
use of GIS for the management of risk data

STAGE 5 (Optimum, Advanced -no identifiable shortcomings)
Hazard mapping as well as vulnerability assessment of all physical assets;
economic vulnerability assessment and social vulnerability /capacity; attention
given to the assessment of risks to all critical facilities; loss estimation scenarios;
in all high risk areas community preparedness system in place including local risk
assessment and monitoring; use of GIS for the management of risk data with full

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public access; hazard and vulnerability patterns regularly monitored and
incorporated into the system; risk assessment system linked to forecast and
warning system; risk assessment system fully coordinated and integrated with
disaster management and risk reduction structures .

It is worth noting that this scale is made up of five stages, alternatives could be a seven stage
scale for a more sophisticated set if differential stages of developments, or a three stage scale for
a much courser grain index of progress. The important point is to always select an odd number so
that the central point in the scale gives an ‘average’ rating. Given the early development of such
scales in disaster risk assessment it would appear most appropriate to use the five stages as
opposed to seven since this may be unnecessarily fine grained.

Summary Requirement, Issue 8.
I ndicators of vulnerability have positive value to assist in forward planning and to raise
awareness at all levels. However, while some hazard indicators can be usefully collected and
used at the national, or even regional scale, vulnerability indicators are only valid at localised
levels since vulnerability, by its nature, is always ‘area specific’.

A five stage development scale is proposed for disaster risk assessment, ranging from 1.
‘Basic’, 2. ‘Below Average’, 3. ‘Average’, 4. ‘Above Average’, 5. ‘Advanced/Optimum’ .

9. Selecting and Weighting Indicators.

When seeking to develop comprehensive and well integrated vulnerability assessments it is
essential to include all the critical issues, not just those that the assessor, or assessment team find
to be interesting or familiar territory.

(The following observations are an extract from a chapter I have written in the forthcoming book: Bankoff, G(Ed.)
(2003) ‘Mapping Vulnerability’ Earthscan, London, (Davis, (2003) Chapter 9, pp 184-186)

A vivid indicator of the dangers of narrow sectoral thinking came in an important ongoing
international programme called the Global Earthquake Safety Initiative (GESI) (Geo Hazards
International and UNCRD, 2001). The pilot programme, completed in 2001, examined the
seismic safety of 21 cities. In order to define the seismic vulnerability of each city, the project
team defined a five-part methodology, with data being collected on the following topics:

• ‘building fatality potential’ (soils/building stock/building construction and
materials/building occupancy rates);
• ‘landslide fatality potential’ (landslides triggered by the earthquake);
• ‘search and rescue life-saving potential’ (numbers of people available to
participate/levels of training, etc);
• ‘fire fatality potential’ (fires induced by earthquakes);

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• ‘medical care life-saving potential’ (casualty management).

It is notable that this list inexplicably omits a range of critical key factors that also have a
decisive impact on vulnerability and capacity:

• ‘the level and effectiveness of public awareness programmes’ (particularly those that are
focused on school children);
• ‘the level and effectiveness of disaster plans’ (disaster plans at all levels, from national to
• ‘high-risk social groups’ (social vulnerability and capacity assessment);
• ‘economic assessment’ urban seismic vulnerability is intimately related to an
identification of any industries/commerce and individual livelihoods that are at risk).

Explanations for such gaps may include the fact that the project is primarily the work of civil
engineers for whom such concerns as public awareness, disaster planning, and social and
economic vulnerability may be unfamiliar territory. However, as this project expands with a new
range of international urban studies, it is vital for the organizers of GESI to radically expand their
assessment criteria and to build interdisciplinary teams in order to undertake the work in each city
that is investigated. Without this wider multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary frame of reference,
the project is fundamentally flawed in its current design since the results will fail to provide the
necessary holistic picture of urban vulnerability.

Reasons for such gaps probably lie in the interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary problems in
creating integrated actions, and the lack of leadership in assembling a total picture. If risk
assessment is likened to a jigsaw puzzle, there are often missing pieces because the individuals
assembling the picture lack an awareness or understanding of the elements that are needed to
comprise an integrated ‘whole’. Assessors from social backgrounds can typically lack an
understanding of engineering aspects of vulnerability; economists are unfamiliar with
environmental considerations, and so on. Therefore, improved interdisciplinary education and
integrated teamwork are required at all levels to tackle problems and to synthesize issues. But for
this to occur, there is a need for inspired leadership to grasp the totality of the problem and the
opportunities. In addition, there is a need for improved publications and better field-based
training in assessment methodologies that will cover both manual, as well as GIS, applications.
(Davis, 2003)

A related issue concerns the weighting of one vulnerability factor in relation to another. In the
development of indicators it is common practice for assessors to weight certain factors in a
hierarchy of value or significance. However, I suggest that within the disaster vulnerability this
highly subjective process is premature, (akin to comparing and defining the relative value or
importance of apples, apricots and bananas!)

For example, in considering the vulnerability of building structures to seismic impact it would be
an exceedingly brave assessor who would have the confidence to weigh any of the following
vulnerability factors more highly that others on the list in any general hierarchy. This would be

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particularly difficult in relating the relative values to a generalised context, unrelated to an actual
measurable situation. More specifically, if the following list was given to say ten different
earthquake specialists, with the request that they rank them in order of importance for seismic
safety, it is almost certain that they would each come forward with different lists. The
vulnerability factors could include the following:

• Structural design
• Structural design relative to the application of successive seismic building codes
• Quality of building construction
• Maintenance of the building
• Configuration of building
• Design details, (such as wall openings, open ground floor etc.)
• Siting of building
• Selection of Building Materials
• Soil conditions
• Relationship to adjacent buildings
• Means of escape
• Density of building occupation

In my view it will be most unwise to attempt to weight any vulnerability factors more highly than
others until we have built up a detailed body of evidence from carefully observed failure under
disaster conditions. To avoid the inevitable professional bias entering the picture, (as may well
have happened in the GESI example quoted in the previous section), this evidence would then
need to be reviewed by expert multi and inter disciplinary teams of assessors before any
weighting values ccould be contemplated. The essence is to develop a rigorous, evidence based
approach based on observed hazard impact, in lieu of subjective selection.
Summary Requirement, Issue 9.
in any ranked order of significance can only be achieved if detailed evidence of disaster
damage and casualties can be collected and analysed by inter and multidisciplinary teams in
order to accurately determine the causal factors of damage and casualties. I n the absence of a
reliable evidence based approach, that has yet to be developed, all indicators should be given
an equal value.

My comments, in summary form, to the orienting questions are as follows:

Character and Purpose:

• What is the purpose of evaluation?
Evaluation relates to two contexts: Firstly the evaluation of risks is to determine,
where possible by objectively measurable indicators, their value and the threat
they pose to people and their property. Secondly the evaluation of a risk

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assessment system is to determine its overall and specific effectiveness in terms of
the value gained from the investment of human and material resources

• Will it be global, broad, non-specific?
Some aspects of hazard mapping may be undertaken at regional or national scales,
however since vulnerability as well as capacity is ‘area specific’ this has to occur
at local levels of towns/ districts to be of any practical value. Any attempt to
average these indicators to create a national index runs the serious risk of
providing decision makers with a very blunt tool based on sets of information that
may fail to indicate specific areas of high vulnerability.

• Should it be multidimensional evaluation?
Yes, as described in issue 9 of this paper vulnerability applies to physical/ social/
economic/ and environmental factors and all need to be undertaken and integrated,
to avoid portraying a distorted picture of vulnerability

• How can the results be used?
The fundamental basis of an effective disaster management system and a system
for risk reduction is an effective, balanced, integrated, monitored and regularly
updated risk assessment system. However, risk assessment data is also important
information for a galaxy of other uses in resource planning at all levels of

• Who can use the information?
All the stakeholders involved in the risk assessment/ management and risk
reduction process. For example:
o Risk Assessors
o Disaster Planners and Disaster Managers
o Emergency Management Staff
o Communities ‘at risk’
o Professional Groups such (as engineers/ geologists/ hydrologists/
architects/ sociologists/ economists etc)
o Academic Bodies
o Political Leaders
o NGO officials
o Private Sector interests

I ndicatum:
• What aspects must be specified in order to evaluate vulnerability?
Hazard Mapping :
Frequency, duration, severity, location, impact characteristics. Localised hazard
mapping by microzonation studies.

Vulnerability Assessment:

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In each of the following sectors vulnerability needs to be assessed alongside
capacity (or resilience)

o Social Vulnerability/Capacity Assessment (soVCA)
This has to include:
High Risk Groups
Family incomes and livelihood security
Risk perception and awareness
Population density
Levels of literacy

o Disaster Management Vulnerability/Capacity Assessment (dmVCA)
This has to include:
Public awareness
National Disaster Planning
Emergency Management System and Structures including
Emergency Operating Centres (EOC’s)
Hospital emergency planning
Education and Training
Comprehensive risk assessment system
Regulatory environment (bye laws and land use planning
Community level disaster preparedness
Forecast and early warning systems

o Physical Vulnerability/Capacity Assessment (phVCA)
This has to include:
The protection of critical facilities that include:
• Basic services: (water /telephones/ electricity/ waste collection etc)
• Prisons
• Emergency facilities (fire/ police/ ambulance/ rescue etc)
• Buildings of high occupancy (theatres/ cinemas/ churches/ mosques
• Schools
• Medical Facilities
• Historical monuments and assets (museums/ public sculpture/
libraries/ public records/ art galleries etc)
• Transportation facilities (airports/ docks/ rail stations etc)
• Government offices where essential functions are carried out
• Communications facilities (TV/ Radio stations/ etc)
• Key economic assets needed to maintain the economy

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General Buildings (excluding those on the above list of critical
facilities) Physical infrastructure (excluding those on the above list of
critical facilities).

o Economic Vulnerability/Capacity Assessment (ecVCA)
This has to include a range of factors relating to direct and indirect loss
Business continuity planning
Insurance and re-insurance protection
The economic vulnerability of key industrial and commercial sectors
The economic vulnerability of key fisheries and agricultural / agro-
industry sectors

o Environmental Vulnerability/Capacity Assessment (enVCA)
This has to include a range of factors relating to direct and indirect loss
Natural resources including wild life

• What issues arise if the country is the unit of measurement?
This has been discussed in the above paper, Issue No 8. My perspective is to
recognise the potential for hazard mapping at the national level but not to attempt
vulnerability assessment at the national level, since vulnerability is highly variable
since it is ‘area specific’. The exception to this approach will be in very small
island countries where the small geographical scale will make all forms of
vulnerability assessment feasible and essential.


This paper has highlighted a number of critical issues that need to be addressed. The nine
‘summary requirements’ listed after each section are a formidable agenda of complex and
demanding tasks. However if an effective risk assessment system can be institutionalised on the
lines indicated, then rich dividends in public safety are within reach.


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