Volcanic risk is highly complex, and incorporates social, economic, physical, infrastructural, and cultural elements. It is also high stakes, but low probability—making it particularly challenging for governments to manage. Substantial advances in the understanding of volcanic processes, hazards, and monitoring signals can enable scientists to forecast volcanic activity in many cases, but high levels of uncertainty remain. Volcanology itself is a relatively young science, emerging in the 20th century following the growth of the geological sciences in the post-Enlightenment period. Crises in the late 20th and early 21st century have demonstrated the complexity of applying uncertain scientific models in particular, local, and politically challenging contexts. Volcanology continues to make advances in integrating disciplines—particularly in the combination of physical hazard science with impact assessment, and increasingly with the social sciences. Volcanic eruptions can also substantially alter the power dynamics in a particular context, as volcanologists’ forecasts can become all-consuming for local populations. This is challenging both for scientists and for political officials and populations coming to terms with the threat they may face. The critical geography of disasters, as it incorporates these issues of relationality, must also learn from the action research literature and develop and deploy interventions that can change the emerging possibility spaces within an emergent disaster assemblage. Understanding the relational processes of sociomaterial disasters through an “imaginations” lens can enable interventions to be identified at an early stage.
Vulnerability is complex because it involves many characteristics of people and groups that expose them to harm and limit their ability to anticipate, cope with, and recover from harm. The subject is also complex because workers in many disciplines such as public health, psychology, geography, and development studies (among others) have different ways of defining, measuring, and assessing vulnerability. Some of these practitioners focus on the short-term identification of vulnerability, so that maps and lists of people living “at risk” can be generated and used by authorities. Others are more concerned with reasons why some people are more vulnerable when facing a hazard or threat than others. Professionals working at the scale of localities are interested in methods that bring out residents’ own knowledge of hazards and help them to cooperate with each other to find ways of reducing risk. There are some interpretations of vulnerability that seek its root cause in the creation of risk by political and economic systems that make investment and locational decisions for the benefit of small elites without regard for how these decisions affect the majority. Finally, whatever success there may be in treating vulnerability in any of the ways just mentioned, it will always be a part of the human condition, and this fact in itself is puzzling.
Janine M. H. Selendy
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Natural Hazard Science. Please check back later for the full article. Increasingly frequent and intense extreme climatic events are wreaking havoc in regions all over the world, not only causing immediate death and destruction, but also destroying prospects for attaining the most basic of human needs—water, food, and secure shelter. What is more, the problems brought about by extreme events are often exacerbated by ecosystem destruction due to human activities. This is a universal, global problem. Children are the most vulnerable. Insufficient and polluted water afflicts a third or more of the people of the world causing over a billion illnesses, illnesses often related to 2.5 billion people lacking sanitation, and illnesses often combined with malnutrition. In 2013, 783 million people lacked clean water. Procurement and allocation of water are major problems in rural and urban areas. More than 70% of fresh water is used for irrigation of crops, much of it lost to evaporation, and much resulting in build up of salinization on bordering farmland. Cities, now home to 54% of the world’s population, often lack adequate infrastructure to provide clean drinking water. In the United States, cities are faced with contaminated water from their pipes, as in Flint Michigan and in New Jersey schools. Naturally occurring water pollutants that can harm ecosystems, aquatic organisms, and humans are becoming more prevalent due to physical developments and climate change. For example, toxic cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, in coastal and inland waters are causing mortality and morbidity in humans, livestock, and wild animals. Over the last three decades, one of these bacteria, C. raciborskii has been increasingly recognized as a public health exigency for drinking water supplies across all inhabited continents. While food today is more readily available worldwide than in the past, nearly a billion people go hungry. The roughly billion people who rely on fish from the oceans are faced with dwindling harvests due to overfishing, warming waters that harm coral reef breeding grounds, and the loss of mangrove spawning grounds. Crops and livestock are hurt by climate change. Productivity is diminished by reliance on monoculture, poor storage, and transportation problems. The situation is drastically worsened by unnecessary waste and spoilage. The world is producing more than enough food, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which says that “Recovering just half of what is lost or wasted” alone could feed the world. Regarding spoilage, aflatoxins—poisonous, cancer-causing chemicals produced by certain molds—are found in spoiled food, including staples such as corn, millet, peanuts, and wheat, affecting not only immediate consumers, but also those who buy processed food. Droughts causing dead livestock and wilted crops have driven millions from their homes and farmland, as happened in Syria. Subsequent conflict led millions of Syrians to become both political and climate refugees, living in refugee camps and traveling thousands of treacherous miles to resettle. Poverty, whether experienced in slums, refugee camps, or other rural and urban settings, causes lack of land and shortages of material for soundly built housing that can withstand weather changes, even screens to help reduce exposure to mosquitoes, flies, and other disease vectors. The nearly quarter of the world’s urban population who live in slums live mostly in overcrowded, unsafe shelters that lack structural security, water for drinking, cooking, and hygiene, and sanitation. They are exposed to communicable diseases and suffer mental stress. Community space, adequate education, and chances for employment or a way out of the slums are rare. In numerous coastal communities, houses are endangered by extreme weather conditions exasperated by climate change. The sea’s rise in India has caused river delta islands to vanish. In 2016, the first climate refugees in the United States, an entire community of Native American Indians, are being forced to move from their ancestral homes on Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana. The present challenges are aggravated by climate change, population growth, and forced migration. It is critical to focus on these basic, inextricably interlocked needs for water, food, and secure shelter, with a view to preventive measures, and to do so with extreme sensitivity to cultures, communities, ecosystems, and ramifications to human health.