Rio+20 Countdown: Taking Vulnerability Seriously

This is Part 16 of a series of blog posts leading up to the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on June 20-22.  The full series is available here.

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An interesting moment happened in the preparatory negotiations for Rio+20 yesterday when negotiators discussed (very briefly) whether the text should refer to “vulnerable groups” or “Peoples in vulnerable situations.”  Although a minor debate that will probably end with negotiators sticking with ‘vulnerable groups’ as the preferred term, I find this debate highly important about a conference that aims to deal with vulnerability.

Vulnerability is going to be a very difficult issue for negotiation and application in the post Rio+20 world.  Identification of vulnerable persons (whether in groups or alone), decisions about whether to deal with the root of the vulnerability or the short term impact of it, assessing dealing with vulnerability are all going to be very tricky situations in a different context than prior development or environmental efforts.  However, taking vulnerability seriously might entail serious questions about the impact that communities have on other communities and their ability to deal with the world.

The Global Environmental Outlook (GEO) broadly discusses vulnerability “Vulnerability represents the interface between exposure to the physical threats to human well-being and the capacity of people and communities to cope with those threats. Threats may arise from a combination of social and physical processes.”  Vulnerability then encompasses two things.  First, the likelihood of disruption to environmental services.  Low island states, mountain communities, communities likely to be stricken by drought or flooding, etc. have higher disruption of environmental services than other populations, particularly in a warming world.  However, combined with this, there is the aspect of capacity to withstand to these threats and that is similarly variable around the world.  Some low-lying island states might have the capacity to build sea walls, develop land reclamation efforts, desalinate cropland, etc.  Others are unable to do any of these.  Some mountain communities are fully insured against landslides and have quick evacuation options, others are in the broad sense vulnerable.  Vulnerability then encapsulates both threat to ecosystem disruption and ability of communities to respond to it.

The international legal and policy problem is how to deal with this.  The official policy brief on the issue has focused primarily on disaster response.  And it seems to be pretty good on disaster response encouraging improved structure, practices, and inclusion of disaster response.  But is this enough?  The easiest test of this is the Perfect Implementation Thought Experiment.  Let’s say that we develop a system of disaster response that within 24 hours of any disaster can have everyone impacted in a warm shelter, with sufficient food, medical attention, clothing, and opportunities to slowly begin to resume their lives.  (We don’t have such a system)  Now, if we had this would this deal with vulnerability of people around the world?

I argue that it would not: Disaster response is key and I would like a significantly upgraded disaster response system, but it does not deal with the core of the problem of vulnerability.  The reason is because it neither increases the capacity of communities to respond, nor does it take into account the fact that stability for some communities comes at increased vulnerability of other communities.  The ability of communities to respond to shocks is going to need strengthening their disaster response system, and their general well-being.  Healthier people are more able to deal with floods than are less healthy people.  This requires larger development and technology transfer to communities around the world.  In addition, it needs to be considered seriously that the global economic system may contribute to increased vulnerability for a large part of the population.  Those following the blog know that I’ve recently began discussing mining and anti-mining protests, this is a clear example where the ability to respond to disasters (with steel frame structures, for example) comes at the cost of increasing the vulnerability of people around the world.

Taking vulnerability seriously then may entail taking a different approach to wealth-making activities.  It does not mean halting them, but instead accounting for the fact that some practices currently done negatively impact the vulnerability of communities.  This is a serious issue and Rio+20 will be one of the primary starts of a core theme over the next decade.  Small wording issues may matter greatly for what results.

Vulnerability Sources:

UNEP Environment Vulnerability Index

Global Environment Outlook Chapter on Vulnerability

GAIN Index on country vulnerability

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