Who is Vulnerable? Vulnerability and Disasters in the Pacific

It was a hot and muggy day. I listened to people recount stories of their experience of the flash flood that had happened six months earlier. One man who had previously lost his legs stated,

“When the flood happened my family carried me and ran.”

He went onto talk about how powerless and fragile it made him feel.
Not only could he not help his loved ones as they fled, but saving him had also become a struggle for them.

Hazards don’t become disasters until they meet people who are vulnerable. Vulnerability should be the center of disaster response, recovery, and risk reduction.

Disaster = Hazard + Vulnerability (Cannon, 2000). Although this short formula appears simple, it is complex. It has implications for what a disaster is, who disasters effects, and how to respond to disasters. People are vulnerable because of power, culture, identity, and society. Thus, even ‘natural disasters’ are –at least in part- ‘man-made’.

Often, there are preexisting unjust structures within communities. If vulnerability is not considered in relief, recovery, and prevention of disasters, it reinforces people’s Social Exclusion. The negative effect of the disaster is multiplied by the event and unequal recovery.

The Solomon Islands April Flash Flood effected 52,000 people. Twenty-two people died in this disaster. Often disaster response works from a national or community level. To understand the impact of disasters we need the ability to hear stories of people who are vulnerable.

Five months after the disaster I worked with World Vision Solomon Islands to evaluate the disaster and their response. We designed the research to understand who was vulnerable and to hear their stories. World Vision Solomon Islands gave permission to share the following data.

What happened

We had discussions with small groups of people in fourteen different groups (young and old women and men) in three communities (lightly effected, moderately effected, and highly effected) and people with disabilities (female and male).

We asked people what happened during the flood. The word picture below shows the number of times people said certain words. Larger words were said more times.

Gardens washed away. People died. Houses washed away. Rubbish and mud washed into communities and homes. People found bodies on riverbanks. People evacuated. People were lost at sea. There were landslides.

Disaster and Vulnerability

While recounting what she saw during the disaster, one woman stated,

Women are worrying a lot. We can’t concentrate. The children are crying because there is no food. The women feel helpless. They cannot go anywhere unless they are invited. The women were very vulnerable during that time. The women were really stressed. Women worried about themselves, their husbands, their children, their food, and clothes. Women faced a different kind of suffering than men.”

Another father -who is blind- told the story of not being able to sleep six months after the disaster. When he closed his eyes to sleep he was woken by images he saw. In his dream, his children washed away because of the flash flood. In his dream there was nothing he could do because he was blind.


We asked people who were most vulnerable during the flood. After making a group list of who was vulnerable, people individually ranked the list according to who they thought was more vulnerable. The higher percentage reflects higher amounts of perceived vulnerability. The charts are an outline of who people said were more vulnerable.

People with Disabilities Group

Highly Effected Communities

Moderately Effected Community

Lightly Effected Community

A few observations

  1. People put age, disability, and women as a common vulnerability during and shortly after the disaster. Further, people mention women who were pregnant and older. These categories are not surprising as they confirm categories commonly considered for vulnerability or exclusion.
  2. 80% of people in the Solomon Islands are subsistence farmers. Farmers as a vulnerability category is not surprising in the context. However it is interesting. The interesting part of this is that people’s profession is not typically a vulnerability category. The flash flood washed several farms and gardens away. This hurt farmers who depended on vegetables for food, money, or both.
  3. People in the community are aware that People with Disabilities are vulnerable. Sadly, from interviews with people with disabilities, community awareness does not necessarily turn into care from the community, government, or other agency responses. Creating societies that People with Disabilities are free to reach their full potential is important in the days following the disaster. This must start earlier by creating systems that increase all people’s domains. As one woman who had a hearing impairment said “If the community leader is not good it really affects PWD’s”.
  4. To understand vulnerability –ideally- we would understand a set of domains people value as well as the identity of people who are excluded (i.e. the categories the communities identified) within each context. This research only showed identity.
  5. Although it did not show-up in the research, it would be interesting to know the effects of migration and ethnicity on vulnerability.

Note: Dr. Matthew S. Will has worked in Asia and the Pacific for the past decade. He currently works as an independent Social Development Researcher and Consultant. His other article on the 2014 Solomon Islands Flash Flood is Degrees of Separation and Disaster Response in the Pacific. Georgina Clark was instrumental in design of the research instruments.

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