Defining vulnerability depends on the kind of crisis context and also on the expected results. I believe that connecting it with resilience will help our outcome in any specific crisis domain.
Vulnerability is the degree of:
i) Exposure to risks of a system (an individual, a population, an organization) when damaged by an event or a crisis (natural or man-made) and;
ii) Its inability to cope with the consequences of the impact received and/or the uncertainty of the situation (lack of resilience).
Vulnerability is the lack of resilience and the degree of exposure to face uncertainty and unexpected situations or events.
Below is the rationale that explains the following definition in a crisis context:
Since the adoption of the Hyogo Framework, the main goal of hazard planning and disaster risk reduction has slightly shifted to focusing more on building community resilience rather than only reducing vulnerability.
Vulnerability increases exponentially in the lack of preparedness and has an inverse correlation with resilience and exposure to risks while has a direct correlation with uncertainty. They are not antagonist concepts because resilience doesn’t eliminate vulnerability nevertheless reduces our exposure and the impact we receive. In a disaster, being prepared and resilient could not avoid the existent vulnerabilities but could reduce enormously the impact and our exposure too. Vulnerability and Resilience have been connected imperatively (see V2R doc) in all kind of studies since both are in the same path to sustainability and survival (survival of the fittest vs. survival of the more resilient).
As resilience deals with complex systems, a system of systems in reality, vulnerability has cross-cutting areas of influence too. The individual connects with the community and this with the institutions and those with the global approach. Taking this into account, is very interesting to see how different -but collaterally interlinked areas- from disaster management to social-ecological systems (SESs), define vulnerability. Anyway, the most important side of the equation is not to define holistically vulnerability but how to measure the benefits of implementing resilience to ensure adequate funding; capacity building to reduce both vulnerability and exposure and increase awareness of implementation.
Below the definitions aforementioned:
1. V2R: Vulnerability is the degree to which a population or system is susceptible to, and unable to cope with, hazards and stresses, including the effects of climate change (see From Vulnerability to Resilience below)
2. UNISDRR http://www.unisdr.org/we/inform/terminology#letter-v : The characteristics and circumstances of a community, system or asset that make it susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard.
Comment: There are many aspects of vulnerability, arising from various physical, social, economic, and environmental factors. Examples may include poor design and construction of buildings, inadequate protection of assets, lack of public information and awareness, limited official recognition of risks and preparedness measures, and disregard for wise environmental management. Vulnerability varies significantly within a community and over time. This definition identifies vulnerability as a characteristic of the element of interest (community, system or asset) which is independent of its exposure. However, in common use the word is often used more broadly to include the element’s exposure.
3. ISO guide73:2009: Intrinsic properties of something resulting in susceptibility to a risk source that can lead to a consequence.
4. Vulnerability analysis – Susceptibility of an event successfully materializing that has the potential to disrupt the achievement of objectives and the activities and processes that support them (“how”).
5. Vulnerability is the set of characteristics and circumstances of an individual, household, population group, system or asset that make it susceptible (or sensitive, in the case of ecosystems) to the damaging effects of a hazard and/or effects of climate change. These characteristics and circumstances can be physical, institutional, political, cultural, social, environmental, economic and human.
There are too many models in place now, but they are pretty much built in silos, for very specific purposes and it is difficult to extrapolate them to different environments or situations. The excess of details of some don’t allow them to be used in other environments and the lack of details of others doesn’t provide the rationale to justify the implementation of resilience with concise data.
There is a need to build a flexible maturity model system which measures the areas where we find vulnerabilities. It needs to be flexible because every system is composed by complex different systems, and then there is no solution that fits all the variables. It has to be adapted to every particular environment, to every community, while keeping commonalities. Coincidentally not everything could be done at once, so we need to establish this maturity model (MM) that welcomes all the systems from immaturity to complex developed systems. Mapping the status of vulnerabilities by areas and defining how implementing resilience and reducing exposure will benefit the community is a tedious but fundamental job to be done. The challenge is how to build such a maturity system without getting lost in the details and the data. Once this is built, it will be very useful for organizations and communities worldwide. Flexibility, adaptability and transformability are the main requirements for this MM, not just a collection, compilation of data but a real analysis system that gives results on what works, why success is achieved in reducing vulnerabilities and how much the implementation effort costs. If that is achieved, the funding required will be better obtained. The problem we face now is how to justify the implementation of something we can hardly measure.
One recommendation that I believe will worth the investment of time and effort, is to have a reading through the methodology of the ISO series: 9000 Quality Management Standards, the 14000 series on environmental management and the ISO 31000 risk management. They have been proven very successful for the private sector and Governments worldwide. In this sense a Social Resilience standard is to be developed the next year, I will keep you updated on the Committee formation and the need for support and ideas.