Vulnerability Assessements: What are they and do you need one?

Vulnerability Assessements: What are they and do you need one?

Vulnerability assessments are a hot topic in sustainability and climate adaptation circles these days.  It is the process of looking at a system and trying to figure out what might make that system fail under particular circumstances so that you can begin to find ways to mitigate those possible failures.  The system might be anything from a computer network, to a power grid, to a neighborhood.   When it comes to climate adaptation the assessment generally looks at how a system, such as town, or piece of infrastructure, would be impacted by certain effects of climate change.  It can be an indispensable tool in climate adaptation planning.

Most vulnerability assessments utilize a four-step process.  These steps include[i]:

  1. Scope
  2. Collect
  3. Assess
  4. Apply

Scope. This is the planning part of the process.  It is probably the most time consuming and you should allow plenty of time to complete it as it is the foundation of your assessment.  It includes defining the parameters of the system you are looking at, who needs to be involved, and asking question such as:

  • What asset or system are you choosing to focus on?
  • What are the climate stressors that will impact it?
  • Who might be impacted by these climate stressors on this particular asset or system?
  • What information do you not have that you might need to collect?
  • What resources might you need to help complete your assessment?

 

This may seem like a lot of information to come up with, but it may be a little less intimidating if we use an example, such as the main road through a medium sized town. What assets are we focusing on?  The main road through our downtown.

  • What are the climate stressors? The road floods more and more frequently due to a nearby river overflowing when large rainstorms and hurricanes come through the region.
  • Who is impacted? People who live near or who have businesses in the downtown area.  Emergency vehicles that need to have a fast route to those in need.  People from other towns who travel through on their way to other places and those who come to town to do business.
  • What information do you need to collect? The frequency of flooding and assessments of past damage. Perhaps a count of cars that travel the road.  Documentation of alternate routes of travel should the road be flooded.  A list of your possible actions for mitigation of the flooding, along with potential costs if you already have some in mind.  Often people do not have solutions at this stage but will be using the assessment to determine what issue should be dealt with first.
  • What resources might you need? Do you have the inhouse expertise, personnel, or time available to do the assessment? You may need to contract with a consultant or other experts to assist with the process.
  • Other important questions include how to fund the assessment and what your timeframe is for completion.

Keep all this information, the questions and your answers, handy.  This is a roadmap for your assessment.  You will need to refer to it as you move through the process.  You may discover that you need to ask more questions, or you may find that something you felt was relevant no longer is.

Collect. This is just what it sounds like.  It is collecting the information and data you need to do the assessment.  Some of the information might already have been collected by other people.  Rainfall amounts, storm frequency, or weather history can often be provided by government agencies.  But there are other items that may not be readily available.  How many emergency call responses have been delayed by the road flooding?  You may need to do a survey of residents to find out how many times they needed to find alternate travel routes.  Or perhaps you need to set up equipment to count the number of cars that travel the roads.  If you are collecting financial information on past damages you will need to know what your parameters are – are you counting just damage to the road itself, will you include losses to business, or the value of the extra travel time for residents who need to find alternate and possibly longer routes.

Assess.  Once you have collected the information you need, it is time to put that information to use.  You will want to use this information to answer questions about which areas of the road are most vulnerable.  Is there one area that is damaged more often than other parts of the road?  Are there certain populations that are most vulnerable to the impacts?  At this point you may also find that some of your assumptions were incorrect and there are other issues you were not aware of.  Again, you may want some experts to assist you on this.

Apply.  Now you have your information, you’ve figured out which parts of the road are most at risk, how much future flooding could cost your town, and who is most affected by it.  You can now use this information to prioritize your solutions.  This might be determined by cost such as which repairs or mitigation techniques will prevent the costliest damage.  Or you might base it on human need, giving emergency vehicle access priority.  It might also be time based.  Is there a part of the road that is most at risk right now?

A vulnerability assessment is a vital tool when it comes to assessing the impacts of climate change and how to plan your adaptation strategies.  But once it is done, don’t set the assessment aside.  It will be a roadmap that you can refer to as you move forward.  Once you have implemented your first solution you will need to review what to do next.  You may also want to use it as a reference for future assessments as an accounting of what worked and what didn’t.  It can continue to provide you with the information you need to best meet the changes and challenges that climate change will present in the future.

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[i] This four-step assessment process is based on the vulnerability assessment process as presented by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at the Adaptation Planning for Coastal Communities conference in Brunswick, Maine in the spring of 2018.

Photo by Daniel Case

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