Social Vulnerability in Disasters and the Philippines


Social vulnerability is defined as “the susceptibility of groups to the impacts of hazards, as well as their resiliency, or ability to adequately recover from them” (Cutter and Emrich, 2006, p. 103). “Social vulnerability highlights differences in the human capacity to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters. It varies over space and time, and among and between social groups, largely due to differences in socioeconomic and demographic characteristics” (Abstract, Hummel, Cutter, & Emrich, 2016).

Although considerable research attention has examined components of biophysical vulnerability and the vulnerability of the built environment (Mileri, 1999), few studies have been done to understand it. Socially created vulnerabilities are largely ignored, mainly due to the difficulty in quantifying them, which also explains why social losses are normally absent in after-disaster cost/loss estimation reports. Instead, social vulnerability is most often described using the individual characteristics of people (age, race, health, income, type of dwelling unit, employment). Social vulnerability is partially the product of social inequalities—those social factors that influence or shape the susceptibility of various groups to harm and that also govern their ability to respond. However, it also includes place inequalities—those characteristics of communities and the built environment, such as the level of urbanization, growth rates, and economic vitality that contribute to the social vulnerability of places” (Cutter, Boruff, & Shirley, 2003, p. 243).

Generally speaking, vulnerability to environmental hazards means the potential for loss. Since losses vary geographically, over time, and among different social groups, vulnerability also varies over time and space. Within the hazards literature, vulnerability has many different connotations, depending on the research orientation and perspective (Dow, 1992; Cutter, 1996; 2001a).

There are three main tenets in vulnerability research: the identification of conditions that make people or place vulnerable to extreme natural events, an exposure model (Burton Kates, and White, 1993; Anderson, 2000); the assumption that vulnerability is a social condition, a measure of social resistance or resilience to hazards (Blaike et al,1994; Hewit, 1997); and the integration of potential exposures and societal resilience with a specific focus on particular places or regions (Kasperon, Kasperon, and Turner, 1995; Cutter, Mitchell, and Scott, 2000) (Cutter, Boruff, & Shirley, 2003, p. 242-243).”

Social vulnerability of people to disasters in a population is not evenly distributed. Some regions are more susceptible to the impacts of hazards than other places based on the characteristics of the people residing within them. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, differential vulnerabilities were observed: residencies in high-risk areas such as the hurricane coasts received catastrophic losses compared to other places hit by the hurricane. This geographic discrepancies in social vulnerability thus requires different mitigation, post-response, and recovery actions (Cutter and Emrich, 2006, p. 102).


The Philippines is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to disasters. Typhoon Ketsana or Ondoy in 2009 revealed differential vulnerabilities of the country. Its impacts largely depend on the physical attributes of the place and the social characteristics of people residing in it. Some areas suffered devastating losses in life and property compared to other places. The local government units (LGUs) are in the forefront of disaster management, including responding to the impacts of climate change in the Philippines.


70 percent of the country’s disasters are due to hydro-meteorological phenomena such as typhoon and flooding. LGUs, being in the forefront in the delivery of basic services, also have the mandate in Disaster Risk Management (DRM) as provided for by a number of national policies such as the Climate Change Act of 2009 and Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) Act of 2010 (Penalba, Elazegui, Pulhin & Cruz, 2012, p.309).

Because adaptation to climate change is location-specific, the role of local institutions is critical in shaping adaptation and improving capacities of the most vulnerable social groups. However, many LGUs are not aware of climate change phenomena and do not have the capacity to assist the affected communities in preparing climate change adaptation measures. It is important for people, communities and institutions to develop adaptive capacity and enhance resilience to minimize risks, damages and losses (Penalba, Elazegui, Pulhin & Cruz, 2012, p.309).

The local government code (LGC) of the Philippines vests authority to LGUs (i.e. provinces, cities and municipalities and villages in the implementation and maintenance of disaster management program, ensuring prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, rehabilitation and reconstruction, and development) (Penalba, Elazegui, Pulhin & Cruz, 2012, p.309).

Vulnerability in the Philippines is determined by the socioeconomic characteristics of the communities and their abilities in responding effectively. The capacity to adapt varies across regions, countries, and socioeconomic groups and will vary over time. The most vulnerable regions and communities are those that are highly exposed to the changes expected in the climate and have limited adaptive capacity. Countries with limited economic resources, low levels of technology, poor information and skills, poor infrastructure, unstable or weak institutions, and inequitable empowerment and access to resources have little capacity to adapt and are highly vulnerable (IPCC, 2001) (Penalba, Elazegui, Pulhin & Cruz, 2012, p.310).

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