Who are most vulnerable to natural hazards?

Natural disasters frequently occur across the world, affecting both developed and developing countries. However some populations are clearly more vulnearable than others. Different communities and countries are more susceptible to the impact of these hazards. The vast majority of lives both lost and affected by natural disasters come from developing countries, underlining the link between poverty and vulnerability to disaster.

At the root of this disparity is poverty. Simply put, people in wealthier countries have better access to the kinds of resources that help both prevent natural disasters becoming crisies and to cope with them when they do occur.

The earth is a hazadous place and natural disasters will continue to occur, but it is mainly in poorer countries that they lead to humanitarian disasters. The vast majority of lives claimed by natural disasters are in such countries and survivors often lose their livelihoods in the aftermath and are forced into more extreme levels of poverty.

This is not purely down to economics, but also ‘age’ and ‘gender’ play a large part as does the environment that people live in.
Industrialised Countries

  • Suffer higher short term economic losses
  • Have mechanisms in place to avoid or reduce loss of life, e.g early warning systems and building regulations to ensure development in high risk areas is designed to withstand forces
  • Have immediate emergency and medical relief infrastructure available which reduces casuality numbers
  • Insurance against property and infrastructural losses

Developing countries

  • Cause setbacks to long term economic and social development of the country
  • Lack of resources for early warning systems; unplanned squatter developments are not designed to withstand natural forces
  • Inflicts massive casualities due to lack of relief infrastructure and resources
  • Forced to divert funds from development programs to emergency relief and recovery

The last mile

Disasters are triggered by external hazards, but they also stem from vulnerability; people being in the wrong place without protection. It is therefore vital that information extends to communities to help them adopt protective actions and engage people living outside of the early warning systems. This is commonly known as ‘the last mile’, which means that warnings often don’t reach those who need them most.

Poorer people are often marginalised socially, politically and geographically and often may not receive early warning of hazards. The relationship between underdevelopment and disasters is made clear in the International Federation Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) World Disaster Report 2009.

Why does poverty mean vulnerability?

If an area prone to natural hazards such as flooding or earthquakes. there are various measures that can be taken to prepare. Early warning systems can be adapted; well organised evacuation proceedures can be put in place; buildings can be designed and built to withstand hazards; protective barriers can be built to insure against rising water levels.

However, such projects require adaquate financial resources, effective government and strong community links. A protection that developed countries across the world benefit from, but a safeguard rarely possible for poorer nations.

Each year natural disasters occurr across the world and in recent years countries including Haiti, Indonesia, Pakistan, Myanmar, USA, China, India, Iran, Turkey and Chile have all suffered severely, with the loss of hundreads of thousands of lives. The highest casualties can be seen in the poorer nations of both Haiti and Indonesia.

Rapid urbanisation has led to poorer people being marginalised from safe and legal areas in many of these countries, forcing many to live in high risk locations, such as flood plains, river banks, steep slopes and reclaimed land.

In these unplanned squatter settlements, homes are not built to withstand such natural forces. Many of these settlements lack even the most basic infrastructure, such as health and fire services and fresh water and sanitation. This leaves communities extremely at risk following a natural disaster.


Folloing the Asian tsunami crisis in 2004, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) argued that women are more vulnerable during disasters because they have less access to resources, are victims of gendered division of labour, and are the primary caregivers to children, the elderly and disabled.

This results in women being less able to mobilse resources for recovery, more likely to be left unemployed and overburdened with domestic responsibilities stopping them from earning an income. There is also the risk of sexual violence and exploitation including trafficking in the aftermath of a disaster.

The elderly

As a group, the elderly are often among the most neglected in disaster relief programmes, even though they are among the most at risk. Relief charity HelpAge International reports that the vulnerability of the elderly is increasing, with the proportion of older people in developing countries set to double to 850 million by 2025.

Following a natural disaster, the elderly’s isolation from family friends and community support greatly increases their vulnerability. Up to half of the people who lost their lives in the 1995 earthquake in the Japanese city of Kobe were elderly. This was disproportionately high given that they only made up 14% of the population.

Sources:  IFRC World disasters report, HelpAge International report , More women die than men as a result of natural disasters (RGS-IBG Annual Conference paper, 2006)

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