Dynamic vulnerability

Submitted by Sukaina Bharwani | published 25th Mar 2011 | last updated 13th Jan 2020
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Lesotho landscape (photo: Sukaina Bharwani)

Vulnerability is a complex and by definition it encompasses many attributes or multiple stresses (social, economic, environmental) which change at different speeds (slow and rapid change) - therefore, it is dynamic. If this is the case, methodologically, we cannot assume to be able to capture a vulnerability state per se, using inappropriate methods such as static indicators as it cannot be bounded, even if we attempt to incorporate many differing viewpoints of vulnerability using participatory processes. The system changes faster then it can be assessed (or perceived in many cases) and indicators do not capture the functional processes of the system or the interrelationships between these processes as they are often poorly understood.

One point of departure in attempting to assess dynamic vulnerability are the six attributes discussed in Downing et al. (2006). The existence or lack thereof of the following attributes contribute to the degree of 'lock-in' to a particular development pathway or to the adaptation of responsive coping cycles which are more likely to lead to sustainability and resilience.

1. Vulnerability is the differential exposure to stresses experienced or anticipated by different exposure units.

2. Vulnerability is not static - it is constantly changing on a variety of inter-linked time scales.

3. Social vulnerability is rooted in the actions and multiple attributes of human actors.

4. Social networks drive and bound vulnerability in the social, economic, political and environmental interactions.

5. Vulnerability is constructed simultaneously on more than one scale (e.g. economic impacts at the national or international scale can have cascading and unpredictable impacts at the local, micro-economic scale).

6. Multiple stresses are inherent in integrating vulnerability of peoples, places and systems.

These six attributes of vulnerability mentioned apply a holistic perspective to try and address the complexity and uncertainty inherent in such systems and the potential pathways of transitions to resilience and sustainability or to decline and degradation. For example, the decreasing density of fuel wood sources in the Lesotho highlands results in spatially distributed vulnerability that reduces the security of livelihoods of the local community who are simultaneously trying to cope with the cumulative impacts of many other stressors they have been experiencing over many years. This includes degraded grazing land, the loss of natural materials for building and craft making (and pressure on grasses as alternative fuel sources) and the health impacts of HIV/Aids to name just a few. The 'legacy effects' of these gradual stressors combined with relatively sudden 'shocks' to the system, such as the construction of the dam, produce a vulnerability context which is difficult to plan for. The complex nature of this dynamic vulnerability (which includes shocks and stresses or slow and rapid change) also interacts at different temporal, spatial and institutional scales and this needs to be fully appreciated to develop a more responsive coping cycle (Liu et al., 2007) which is both resilient and sustainable.


Bharwani, S., Shale, M., Taylor, A., Matin, N., Downing, T.E. CAIWA 2007: International Conference on Adaptive & Integrated Water Management. Coping with complexity and uncertainty. Basel, November 2007 Integrating social vulnerability into water management in the Lesotho Highlands.

Downing, T. E., Aerts, J., Soussan, J., Barthelemy, O., Bharwani, S., Ionescu, C., Hinkel, J., Klein, R.J.T., Mata, L., Moss, S., Purkey, D. and Ziervogel, G. (2006). Integrating social vulnerability into water management. Oxford, Oxford: Stockholm Environment Institute.

Liu, J., Dietz, T., Carpenter, S.R., Alberti, M., Folke, C., Moran, E., Pell, A.N., Deadman, P., Kratz, T., Lubchenco, J., Ostrom, E., Ouyang, Z., Provencher, W., Redman, C.L., Schneider, S.H., Taylor, W.W. 2007 Complexity of Coupled Human and Natural Systems. Science www.sciencemag.org 317, 1513-1516.