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Whose assessment counts? The difficulty of measuring vulnerability

18 Jan 2016 - 15:00

By Tanvi Deshpande, Arjun Srinivas, Chandni Singh

Why assess vulnerability?

India faces a complex and often paralysing array of development issues. Climate change has joined this list and some argue that it competes for and overshadows other more pressing problems such as population growth, poverty and inequity, air pollution and natural resource degradation. Vulnerability assessments are increasingly being used as tools to prioritise development funding because they help identify who is most vulnerable and can inform decisions towards climate change adaptation.

However, the multiplicity of ways in which vulnerability is conceptualised and measured means that it is difficult to choose one method to conduct an assessment. While actors across a range of domains (government departments, private companies, non-governmental organisations) are expected to use vulnerability assessments to inform fund allocation and priorities, there remains a skills deficit across sectors. Recognising the need to fill this gap, the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) ran a three-day course “Understanding Vulnerability: Concepts, Methods, and Applications for Development Planning”.

3-day course on concepts and methods of vulnerability assessment

The course was organised by IIHS’s Urban Practitioners Programme (UPP) in association with the School of Environment and Sustainability from the 10th-12th December 2015. The audience ranged from various disciplines and sectors (including disaster management, urban development, renewable energy, agriculture) and domains (public, private, academic and civil society).  

The course focussed on understanding how vulnerability is conceptualised in different disciplines spanning resilience and ecology, disaster risk reduction, economics and poverty studies, and climate change. The course also provided a snapshot of the various methods used to assess vulnerability, including indicator-based methods and participatory tools to capture vulnerability. Finally, the course touched on how vulnerability assessments can serve as a powerful tool to inform development planning and financial prioritisation.

The classes, which were a mix of lectures, case studies, participatory games and multimedia, discussed how vulnerability may change across spatial and temporal scales. For example, farmer food security changes across seasons depending on whether it is post-harvest or the dry, lean season (temporal vulnerability); and a household’s exposure to a flood is very different from a nation’s exposure (spatial vulnerability).

Participants engaged in an interactive session

Exploring vulnerability in Bangalore’s informal settlements

One of the key components of the course was a field exercise that involved assessing vulnerability in a real world setting. Course participants were divided into two groups of 15 participants each and taken to two informal settlements in Bangalore. The settlements were chosen based on factors – such as climatic risks that residents face (e.g., flash floods) – and non-climatic issues – such as poor housing quality, poor water access, insecurity of tenure, and a lack of livelihood opportunities.

One of the sites was situated in Ejipura, in South Eastern Bangalore and represented a settlement of families that had been displaced due to the redevelopment of the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) Quarters in the vicinity. The second site was in Mahalaxmi Layout, in Northwest Bangalore, which is situated at a depth of 10 feet from the surrounding streets and is thus prone to flooding. The participants spent half a day interacting with the communities in the two sites and were asked to reflect on the best ways to assess vulnerability. Their presentations were insightful, to say the least.

Site one - Houses in Mahalaxmi layout are in a low lying area that is prone to floods every monsoon

Temporary housing in Ejipura: Participants gathering information from residents in site one

Multiple notions of what vulnerability is

Each group assessed vulnerability differently. While some groups employed a participatory approach, based on conversations with opinion leaders, others adopted indicator-based assessments covering social, economic and environmental drivers of vulnerability. The participants obtained primary information from the households based on education, employment and housing quality and aggregated the information to create individual indicators across dimensions. One of the groups deconstructed the vulnerability analysis to individually explore risks, sensitivity and adaptive capacity of the residents.

Vulnerability as captured by a combination of risk, sensitivity and adaptive capacity: findings from an assessment in Mahalaxmi Layout

Since the residents in the Ejipura settlement had been forcibly evicted from their original habitations, one of the groups presented a historical narrative, taking us through events of demolition and displacement. They highlighted the legal battle underway and the efforts of civil society activists in representing the slum dwellers. Using narratives to paint an evocative picture of displacement and unequal rights to an urban space, the group depicted vulnerability as powerlessness and the lack of choice.

Site map (left) and problem tree depicting drivers of vulnerability in Ejipura.

Findings from the two sites presented an interesting contrast. Situated on a stormwater drain and abutting the main road, the Ejipura community was perceived as representing extreme destitution characterised by lack of basic amenities, temporary tenements that were susceptible leakages, poor access to water, and regular outbreak of disease. On the other hand, the settlement in Mahalaxmi Layout, which has been there for over three decades, comprised permanent structures with relatively better access to amenities. Being a low-lying area, residents here were highly exposed to flooding during the rains. The learners inferred that regularisation and in-situ redevelopment of the land, in collaboration with the municipal authorities, was the way forward.     


Group activity – consolidation of site visit findings

From the course and the field exercise, we found that assessing vulnerability is complex and often confusing because:

1.    the drivers of vulnerability are contextual and confounded by issues at other scales;
2.    there are multiple methods, and the pros and cons of each are not clearly or widely understood;
3.    what we as assessors term vulnerability may differ from what the vulnerable themselves identify as drivers of vulnerability.


Crucially, vulnerability is understood and perceived differently by different people be it the researchers and academic groups, the government and non-government agencies (who are generally the assessors of vulnerability), the multinational agencies (who fund vulnerability assessment studies), or vulnerable groups themselves. Negotiating these multiple and often contesting perceptions of who is vulnerable and why can be difficult, but being aware of this is necessary for any assessment.

Course participants and organisers