Natural hazards pose significant threats to Australian communities.
Failing to identify and support the most vulnerable communities is a recipe for disaster. In this regard, the concept of social vulnerability has long emerged as a widely recognised way of assessing both the sensitivity of a population to natural hazards and its ability to respond and recover from them. In the traditional approach to computing social vulnerability, the emphasis is mainly on the weaknesses only (e.g. old age, low income, language barriers, etc.), thereby undermining the resourcefulness of people within communities to self-organise and minimise their vulnerability to natural hazards.
Dr Robert Ogie, a researcher in Critical Infrastructure and Disaster Modelling at the University of Wollongong, has proposed a more balanced approach referred to as the strength-based social vulnerability index (SSVI). The proposed SSVI technique, which is built on sound socio-psychological theories of how people act during disasters and emergency events, has been applied to highlight the most vulnerable suburbs in the Greater Wollongong area of New South Wales, Australia. An interactive social vulnerability map for the area can be found here. The study also provides empirical evidence on how social vulnerability has changed over space and through time (2006 – 2016) within New South Wales, Australia.
What are some implications of SSVI for emergency and disaster management practice?
First, emergency agencies should carefully consider the SSVI technique as a useful approach for obtaining fair and balanced vulnerability information to help improve emergency planning and resource allocation decisions for preparedness, response (e.g., evacuation priority), and recovery effort in different communities. In the event of a major disaster, citizens, volunteer workers and donors of relief materials can rely on results from the SSVI technique to identify highly vulnerable communities that may require higher level of specific supplies (e.g., baby food, nappies, mobility aids, etc.) to support recovery.
As part of implementing the strength-based approach, a workable plan should be created for community strengths to be identified and harnessed during natural hazard events. This will require equipping the able-bodied members of communities with the requisite knowledge and training to work alongside emergency agencies. Similarly, emergency service workers should be trained to work alongside community members and other spontaneous volunteers without having to perceive them as threats.
What are the main advantages of adopting the SSVI technique?
(1) The SSVI technique compels authorities to recognise the strengths in communities rather than just the deficiencies or weaknesses- this means taking the focus away from what is “wrong” to what is “strong” within communities;
(2) it will refocus resources that would have been lavished on experts to strengthen capacities within communities;
(3) it will encourage and empower citizens to take actions to support their communities, rather than always relying on overstretched resources and expertise from emergency services. This will potentially help to avoid what we describe as “secondary vulnerability”, that is, vulnerability arising due to excessive reliance on external sources for help with a consequent lack of self-efficacy to defend against natural perils.