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The Center for Refugee and Disaster Relief


Human Vulnerability to Natural Disasters

Project Overview

Over the past several decades, natural disasters have become more frequent, and populations affected by disasters are following a similar and increasing trend (IFRC, 2003). The growing impact of natural disasters has triggered a need to enhance the understanding of human and social vulnerability to disasters (Pielke et. al,, 2005; Cutter, 2003; Peacock et. al, 1997; Alexander, 1997) and to improve both the quality of data and management of information that guides the humanitarian response following disasters (Cross, 1997). Natural disasters have profound social, economic, and environmental impacts (Benson and Clay, 2000, NRC, 1999; Morduch, 1994; Sapir, 1993). Key changes resulting from natural disasters include transformations in population structure and status, and alterations of local geography, environment, infrastructure, and economies. Consequently, disasters and the humanitarian responses that follow have a large impact on population well-being, and it is important that relief and recovery efforts be well informed in order to target assistance appropriately and facilitate recovery.

Modeling population vulnerability and risk in natural disasters and post-disaster assessments of surviving populations enable governments and humanitarian organizations to make rapid, informed decisions under conditions of great uncertainty (McEntire, 2001; Kunreuther, 2002). The advantage of using modeling before or immediately after a disaster is that it can help to target and guide post-disaster activities, including surveys, to obtain higher quality data for subsequent analysis and decision making. Complementary geospatial and field survey data can drive hypotheses and models of vulnerability and risk (Ruckelshaus et. al, 1997; Dozier, 1992; Cibula and Nyquist, 1987). Some vulnerability models already exist (Turner et. al, 2003; Blaikie et. al, 1994; Cannon T, 1994); however they lack human-environment system components (Kasperson et. al, 2003).

Disaster modeling and surveys of affected populations that incorporate aspects of population movements, needs assessment, living conditions, and health data with spatial modeling are ideal tools for providing information on disaster vulnerability and impact and have a practical role in assisting governments and humanitarian organizations in disaster response by promoting informed management and decision making.

Information generated from this approach can also inform rehabilitation, mitigation and preparedness efforts.

The overall goals of the Human Vulnerability to Natural Disasters Project are to assess population risk to natural disasters and provide information on affected populations to decision makers in the post-disaster relief and rehabilitation context. The primary aims of are as follows:

1.To establish spatial dependencies and interactions between socio-demographic and environmental variables in order to determine which socio-demographic factors and environmental characteristics are related, and the degree of and/or types of risk humans face in the context of different types of natural disasters;

2.To determine which socio-demographic and environmental variables show the most significant dependencies and correlations and to assess the relationship between socio-demographic and environmental characteristics in relation to vulnerability in different types of natural disasters;

3.To evaluate how models of pre-disaster vulnerability, in particular estimates of populations at risk, can be incorporated into post-disaster assessments in order to derive less biased estimates of disaster impact.

The purpose of this site is to provide resources and tools for students, researchers, aid agencies and policy makers to aid in the understanding of human vulnerability in natural disasters and the assessment of vulnerability across populations affected by to the following natural disaster types: earthquakes, floods, storms, tsunamis, and volcanoes.

Information related to human vulnerability to injury, mortality and displacement across multiple natural disaster event types can be found in the following areas:

Historical event review

A compilation of natural disaster events, organized by event type, affecting human populations throughout history

Publications database

Results of a systematic review of published literature conducted to identify human vulnerability to injury, mortality and displacement in natural disasters

Field Assessments & Publications

An overview of the field assessments and findings from surveys designed to assess human vulnerability to natural disaster across a range of settings and disaster types

Geographic Information System (GIS) Modeling

An overview of GIS modeling techniques and findings from analyses performed to assess geographic vulnerability to natural disasters



Alexander, D. (1997). The study of natural disasters, 1977–1997: some reflections on a changing field of knowledge. Disasters, 21(4),284–304.

Benson, C. & E J Clay. (2000.) ‘Developing countries and the economic impacts of natural disasters’. In. Kreimer, A. and M. Arnold (ed.) Managing disaster risk in emerging economies. Disaster Risk Management Series 2. Washington, D.C.: World Bank., pp. 11-21.

Blaikie P., T. Cannon, I. Davis, & B. Wisner. (1994). At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters. London, Routledge.

Cannon T. (1994) Vulnerability analysis and the explanation of “Natural” Disasters. In: Varley, A. (ed). Disasters, Development and Development, John Wiley, Chichester.

Cressie N.A.C. (1993). Statistics for spatial data. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., p. 900.

Cibula, W., &  M. Nyquist. (1987). Use of topographic and climatological models in a geographical data base to improve Landsat MSS classification for Olympic National Park. Photogrammetric Engineering and Remote Sensing, 53, 67-75.

Cross, J. (1997). Natural hazards and disaster information on the Internet. Journal of Geography, 96, 307-14.

Cutter, S. L., et. al. (2003). Social Vulnerability to Environmental Hazards. Social Science Quarterly, 84(2), 242-61.

Dozier, J. (1992). Opportunities to Improve Hydrologic Data. Reviews of Geophysics30(4), 315-331.

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (2003). Word Disasters Report. Geneva: IFRC.

Kasperson, J.X., Kasperson, R. E., Turner, B. L., Schiller, A. & Hsie, W. H. (2003). The Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change, eds. Diekmann,A.,Dietz, T., Jaeger, C. and Rosa, E.S., MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Kunreuther, H. (2002). Risk Analysis and Risk Management in an Uncertain World. Risk Analysis, 22(4), 655-664.

McEntire, D. (2001). Triggering Agents, Vulnerabilities and Disaster Reduction: Towards a Holistic Paradigm. Disaster Prevention and Management, 10(3), 189-196.

Morduch, J. (1994). Poverty and Vulnerability. American Economic Review, 84 (2), 221-225.

NRC. (1999). The Impacts of Natural Disasters: A Framework for Loss Estimation. Committee on Assessing the Costs of Natural Disasters, National Research Council, p. 80.

Peacock, W. G., Morrow, B. H., & Gladwin, H. (eds.). (1997). Hurricane Andrew – Ethnicity, gender and the sociology of disasters. Routledge, London.

Pielke, R. A., Agrawala, S., & Bouwer, L. M. (2005). Clarifying the Attribution of Recent Disaster Losses: A Response to Epstein and McCarthy. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, (86)10, 1481-4.

Ruckelshaus M., Hartway, C., & Kareival. P. (1997). Assessing the Data Requirements of Spatially Explicit Dispersal Models. Conservation Biology, 11(6), 1298. 

Sapir, D. G. (1993). Natural and man-made disasters: the vulnerability of women-headed households and children without families. World health statistics quarterly, (46)4, 227-233.

Turner, B. L., Kasperson, R. E., Matson, P. A., McCarthy, J. J., Corell, R. W., Christensen, L. et al. (2003). A framework for vulnerability analysis in sustainability science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, (100), 14, 8074-8079.

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