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Are they really vulnerable?

A caretaker sees to the John, and elderly man in the heatwave-stricken city. “Surely John must have a hard time getting through the scorching heat this week”, the caretaker thinks. The years have caused his body to decline and regulating the temperature is difficult for him nowadays. It is surprisingly cool in John’s home. An air conditioner is installed in the living room. The orientation of the house does not allow for sunlight to hit the windows directly, preventing the temperature inside from increasing as well. John does not seem to mind the caretaker, but at the same time does not show any signs of fatigue or physical problems from the heat. The government freed up several big funds for elderly caretaking during this heatwave; they are the vulnerable population after all, are they not? Through one of the windows, a construction worker can be seen across the street. She is 20 years of age. It is the hottest moment of the day. She faints from the heat.

This fictional example shows how the perceived vulnerable population is sometimes actually very resilient to heatwaves, flooding, or any other type of hazards. Scientific research has shown many times over that elderly are vulnerable to natural hazards, but this is always based on imperfect information and limited data. On the national scale these results may hold, but zooming in on individual cases, we see a lot more complexity arising. We call these complexities the dynamics of vulnerability. Someone’s vulnerability describes the level of negative impact they receive from a natural hazard. It consists of characteristics about someone’s living conditions, physique, social situation, economic status, and more. Usually, these characteristics are directly linked to more or less impact: elderly are more vulnerable to heat, so an aging city must be more vulnerable to heatwaves. However, as we saw in the example with John, retired elderly may actually be less vulnerable than youthful construction workers that work outside in the scorching sun.

In a recently conducted research (led by Tristian Stolte from the Institute for Environmental Studies), several of these types of dynamic vulnerability were identified. The case of John is an example of bidirectional vulnerability: the elderly’s bodies make them more vulnerable to heat, but because they are retired, they are less vulnerable – both characteristics are caused by their age. Next to age, researchers usually have a lot of data on the population’s sex and they tend to compare the impact on men vs women. Physically, there is not much difference between them, but women are often found to be more vulnerable because of conditional vulnerabilities. When they live in societies ruled by men, they often find themselves taking care of the household, the children, and the provisioning of food, all of which made difficult by floods. As a final example: imagine that you live in a neighbourhood with detached houses. Suddenly, your neighbour starts heightening their home, putting it on a small hill. Next time it rains, all the water that would end up on the plot of your neighbour now flows towards you and the rest of the area. The neighbour transferred some of their vulnerability to you! This is therefore called transferable vulnerability.

Ignoring these dynamics of vulnerability leads to inefficient distribution of funds by the government. Policy makers should be aware of them and handle them in a timely manner. They can only do this if they now what is going on in their cities, because this context is the most important ingredient in a well-constructed policy document. So go out in the field and talk to the population to find out how vulnerability works beyond the national-scale scientific research that we so often see, but just does not cut it for individual cities! He may have enjoyed the extra care, but I am sure John would agree.

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Tristian Stolte

PhD candidate Water and Climate Risk, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

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