A World Risk Index was released earlier this month by the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn, Germany.  It uses four indicators to define countries at risk to natural disasters namely exposure, susceptibility, coping capacities and adaptive capacities.  It gives a ‘risk score’ for 173 countries around the world by combining their exposure to physical hazards with their vulnerability, including susceptibility along with coping and adaptive capacities.  It focuses on countries’ exposure to sudden hazards such as earthquakes, floods and storms, but also hazards that occur slowly over a long period of time such as drought and sea level rise that is becoming more frequent due to climate change.

According to the World Risk Index, the risk of disaster is highest for the Pacific island of Vanuatu, which was given a score of 32 percent.  The country with the lowest risk score is Qatar at .02 percent.  The UK came in at 138 mostly due to its ‘Lack of coping capacity’ (47.55 percent), but also ‘Lack of adaptive capacities (30.25 percent) and ‘Vulnerability’ (31.11 percent).  Japan appears to be the only developed country with an index of around 10 percent or more, making its risk index one of the highest (World Rank: 35) of all the countries analysed. 

The World Risk Index provides definitions to some of the terms widely used today in hazard and risk research.  While any singular definition of a broad term such as ‘risk’ is limiting, the holistic basis of the World Risk Index in understanding the role of a multitude of different factors that define vulnerability is useful for understanding the social and physical aspects of disaster recovery, preparation, resilience and so on.

Here are some of the terms defined in the report that are used frequently:

Risk –Defined in relation to disaster (‘disaster risk’) which ‘is seen as a function of exposure and vulnerability’.  ‘Risk is essentially determined by the structure, processes and framework conditions within a society that can be affected by natural hazards, as well as the exposure to natural hazards and climate change’.

Adaptive capacity – ‘Long-term strategies for change within a society’ mostly for future hazards and climate change.

Coping capacity – Refers to ‘resources for a direct response to the impact of a given hazard event, this would include disaster preparedness and early warning.

Exposure – Countries or other ‘entities’ affected by natural hazards such as floods, earthquakes, droughts, storms, floods and sea level rise.

Susceptibility — Susceptibility refers to selected structural characteristics of a society and the framework conditions in which communities face potential natural hazards and climate phenomena.

Vulnerability – Combination of countries’ social conditions, including susceptibility, coping capacities and adaptive capacities.

This diagram from the World Risk Index below defines vulnerability according to the combination of factors mentioned above:

Quantifying risk or vulnerability is a daunting task.  While risk can be understood in purely empirical terms, doing so leaves out a number of other components important to understanding and alleviating risk in different parts of the world.  For example, how do you calculate how a country that has a high level of exposure to a number of different hazards reacts psychologically or how they maintain themselves during the aftermath?  The strength of infrastructure and government is important to understanding countries’ level of risk, but this is merely scratching the surface.  Vulnerability is also difficult to understand quantitatively especially since like risk it can be defined in so many different ways.

Despite these grey areas, understanding who is vulnerable and at risk is important for preparing for disaster.  It allows countries to work on managing disasters as well as for neighbouring countries to find out where they can make the most difference in terms of aid and research efforts.  However, perhaps it is also important to note that while gauging vulnerability is useful for a number of different reasons, simply labelling countries as vulnerable does little to alleviate their situation.  Understanding the context of people’s vulnerability to hazards including why they are vulnerable in the first place, seems much more useful for making a difference in their lives.

The World Risk Index does mention the importance of long-term environmental changes that have the potential to create hazards, such as climate change.  Geological changes in the Earth’s environment often take place over long periods of time and it is only during certain points such as an earthquake or tsunami, that we consider them to be hazardous.  How countries prepare for future hazards needs to account for these kinds of change to reduce vulnerability while increasing people’s ability to adapt.  Infrastructure and communication are both key aspects of this process.

The World Risk Index highlights the example of Chile illustrating how its preparation and resources for mitigating hazards like earthquakes have been strong, including the fact that it has less government corruption than many developed countries in addressing disasters, including France, Belgium and the US.  According to the World Risk Index, since the 1960s the government institutions of Chile have ‘continuously established and enforced better building regulations’, which could help explain the low-level of mortality after the country experienced an 8.8 magnitude earthquake that killed 562 people.  While Chile is considered an example of strong governance in preparing for disasters, Haiti on the other hand is labelled a ‘fragile state’ that was severely unprepared to cope with a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010.  The World Risk Index says ‘weak governance’ is one of the most important risk factors as states with strong institutions have fewer reported deaths after a disaster occurs than those with weak or non-existent institutions.

Concentrating on governance, the World Risk Index argues that not every extreme, large-scale hazard has to end in catastrophe and that disaster risk is really determined by a combination of exposure to hazards and social vulnerability.  This provides a compelling conceptual framework for developing scientific expertise and social resources imperative to preparing for and mitigating against future disasters.  While no index or report can encompass the complexity and magnitude of the world’s exposure and vulnerability to hazards, this World Risk Index from the UN is a clear example that researchers are moving beyond singular framings of hazards and risks and how we deal with them today and in the future.


2011 UN World Risk Index. UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security

DISASTERS: New risk index helps identify vulnerability. IRIN