Vulnerability

Vulnerability is the susceptibility of a group to a natural hazards, which affects social, productive, economic, cultural and ecological components of a population.

What is Vulnerability?

Vulnerability can be both social and biophysical in nature, and often consists of a combination of both. Biophysical vulnerability is a combined function of hazard, exposure and sensitivity, whereas social vulnerability can be understood as a state, including factors such as poverty, inequality, food insecurity and other elements contributing to marginalization1.

For smallholder farmers, who frequently lack access to basic services, infrastructure and opportunities, while depending disproportionately on a natural resource base and environmental conditions, social vulnerability is a contributing factor to their biophysical vulnerability. The rural farmers whose livelihoods and food security are dependent upon rainfed agricultural production systems, are especially vulnerable to regular climate risk and progressive climate change.

According to Adger et al (2003), vulnerability of a system to climate change is determined by its exposure, physical setting and sensitivity, as well as by its ability and opportunity to adapt to change. Vulnerability to climate change and to the hazards associated with climate risk is not strictly synonymous with poverty either, although vulnerability is likely to reinforce the often pre-existing underlying social and economic inequalities2. It is important therefore to understand the context of vulnerability.

Vulnerability is frequently taken to mean risk of exposure. The Resilience Alliance further builds upon this, defining vulnerability as:

“the propensity of social and ecological systems to suffer harm from exposure to external stresses and shocks. It involves exposure to events and stresses, sensitivity to such exposure (which may result in adverse effects and consequences, and resilience owing to adaptive measures to anticipate and reduce future harm….The antonym of resilience is often denoted vulnerability. Coping capacity is important, at all stages, to alter these major dimensions.” 3,4

Vulnerability may also be viewed as a characteristic of a population rather than a system, and defined as the “susceptibility of a group and its situation to a natural hazard factor, which affects social, productive, economic, cultural and ecological components of a population. The group’s vulnerability is determined by its capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist and recover from the impacts of natural disturbance.”5 This definition encompasses both ex post and ex ante responses to a potential climate risk in reducing vulnerability.


1. Brooks, N. (2003). Vulnerability, risk and adaptation: A conceptual framework. Event London. Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

2. Adger, W. N., Huq, S., Brown, K., Conway, D., & Hulme, M. (2003). Adaptation to climate change in the developing world. Progress in Development Studies, 3(3), 179–195.

3. http://resalliance.org

4. Füssel, H.-M. (2007). Vulnerability: A generally applicable conceptual framework for climate change research. (J. Banhart, M. F. Ashby, & N. A. Fleck, Eds.)Global Environmental Change, 17(2), 155–167 p. 161

5. Alayón-gamboa, J. A., & Ku-vera, J. C. (2011). Vulnerability of smallholder agriculture in Calakmul , Campeche , Mexico. Knowledge Creation Diffusion Utilization, 10(January), 125–132.