Climate Vulnerability and Resilience

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UNESCO, Nairobi, Kenya

There are many kinds of vulnerability. Low-lying coastal countries and small islands face risks very distinct from those that landlocked or mountainous nations face. Small countries whose economies depend on few sectors are vulnerable in ways which bigger countries with large populations of poor citizens are not, and vice versa. Organisations that have tried to make sense of these differences include non-profit organisation DARA and the Climate Vulnerable Forum. They developed the Climate Vulnerability Monitor to assess and track changes to the vulnerability of 184 countries. This index considers each country’s exposure to extreme weather events and other climatic risks, its sensitivity to environmental change, dependence on environmental goods and services, and its economic, technical and political capacity to adapt to climate change.

Within countries, the picture becomes even more complex, as the vulnerability of individuals and communities varies greatly, as does the extent to which different businesses, economies, ecosystems and infrastructure are vulnerable. At all scales, vulnerability is linked to wealth and power: often it is the poorest and most marginalised of people who are most vulnerable. That said, rich people and rich countries are not immune to the effects of climate change. Across all groups, the very old and the very young are most at risk from any health-related impacts of climate change, and, in general, women are more vulnerable than men. Mortality rates during extreme weather events are often greater for women than they are for men, as women face many social, economic and other barriers that limit their capacity to protect themselves.

The same groups of people most vulnerable to climate change impacts tend also to be the ones least able to adapt. When storms or floods hit cities, it is generally the urban poor that are hit hardest in terms of deaths and injuries. Most houses in informal settlements are poorly built and thus more liable to collapse when hit by storms or floods. Many informal settlements develop on dangerous sites such as flood plains or unstable slopes because housing on safer sites is too expensive. As a result, large sections of the urban population are very vulnerable to any increases in the frequency or intensity of storms, floods, landslides or heat waves, and to increased risk of disease, constraints on water supplies or rises in food prices.

Africa’s coming energy challenges
Energy insecurity is a key challenge to growth and development in Africa. According to the World Energy Council, in sub-Saharan Africa, over 500 million people lack reliable access to affordable electricity. As governments take steps to power their rural constituents, they will very likely rely on two electricity sources, biomass and hydropower, particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, namely drought. Energy security hotspots are arising more and more frequently: in Zambia, where forest covers 60 per cent of the country’s landmass, decreased rainfall has severely reduced the country’s biomass production potential; in Kenya, extreme heat is drying up the Tana River, where the country sources 60 per cent of its hydroelectric power.