Vulnerability set to increase in the near future
An undesirable combination of circumstances in South Africa, some of which link closely to decreasing social coherence and social capitalb, makes people vulnerable to environmental change. These conditions include poverty, HIV and AIDS, population growth, inadequate access to basic services, transformation of ecosystems to provide the resources to meet rising population demands, current climate variability, poor land-use practices, as well as accelerating changes in our environment due to climate change, invasive alien species, and habitat destruction.
Droughts increasingly threaten food security; floods and fires in densely populated informal settlements take human lives and cause immense damage and loss of property; infectious diseases attack the poor at random; changes in the distribution of vector borne diseases cause new outbreaks.
The cumulative evidence for increasing human vulnerability to environmental change in South Africa calls for a significant policy response and action on several fronts. Responding to vulnerability requires building on people’s own responses, providing institutional support, and promoting resilience and adaptive capacity among the people most at risk.
Social responses have frequently focused on a reactive mode of mitigating the impacts of environmental change or natural disaster, rather than on a pre-emptive mode, which addresses issues ahead of a potential crisis. The onset of conditions that create threats and vulnerability may be gradual or inconspicuous. Ways need to be found to show how environmental change riskreduction and management relate to other risks, as well as to link these activities to ongoing development agendas.
One of the most effective responses to human vulnerability to environmental change is to strengthen mechanisms that provide early warning, such as vulnerability assessments and disaster management planning.
Vulnerability assessment can measure the severity of potential threats on the basis of known hazards and the levels of vulnerability of societies and individuals. It can be used to translate early-warning information into preventive action and is necessary for early warning and emergency preparedness. Results should ideally be integrated into the long-term planning policies of institutions and governments,and should promote institutional responsiveness to increasing vulnerability, as well as action for disaster preparedness and mitigation.
Such policy responses should be complemented by initiatives aimed at improving the capacity of vulnerable groups to cope with a threat when it becomes a reality. Improving coping capacity of groups when they are at greatest risk can greatly reduce the damage caused by extreme events or environmental degradation.