Social vulnerability and urban resilience – in conversation with Dr. Nishara Fernando
unlocked team
4 October 2019

The Unlocked team sat down with Dr. Nishara Fernando from the Department of Sociology, University of Colombo, to talk about urban resilience and the sociological aspects of vulnerability, which often receive less attention. The main theoretical and practical arguments he brought to light are captured below.


The Double Structure of Vulnerability

The double structure of vulnerability

Developed by the Social Geographer Hans George Bohle, this conceptual model for vulnerability focuses on the two aspects of vulnerability: exposure and coping. According to Bohle, while we are exposed to different types of shocks – political, economic and natural, these shocks will generate risks and stress situations at a macro and micro level. Although economists, geographers and even natural scientists try to explore exposure to vulnerability, very few attempt to study the internal side of how people cope with the situation. Therefore, Bohle’s argument is that in order to identify a group of people who are vulnerable to poverty or chronic poverty, they have to be assessed by considering both aspects; exposure and coping. –

Citing a practical example, Dr. Nishara explained that the Tsunami for instance was the first shock for the affected communities as they lost their movable and immovable property. Thereafter they were exposed to another shock when the government re-imposed the buffer zone regulation causing them to be forcibly moved into relocated settlements. In the case of the displaced community who lived in the multi ethnic, multi religious, multi caste, multi class city of Galle, they were moved into the Akmeemana area which is 10-15 km away from the city. These shocks, particularly resettlement, generated various risks and stress situations since most households of this community aspired to remain in the city. In terms of employment, many people were involved in businesses in the city and thereby needed to commute back and forth daily while many others, who had been engaged in informal sector activities in the city could not find employment. They were also dissatisfied with the educational facilities in that area, not to mention the condition and the quality of housing. Some of the settlements were even exposed to floods. As a result of these hardships, now, around 14 years after relocation, most of the communities have moved back to the buffer zone. As such, it is clear that they were not in a position to successfully cope with the new risks generated as a result of relocation. Therefore Dr. Nishara reiterated that it is imperative to capture both aspects of exposure and coping to define a person’s level of vulnerability.


Urban Vulnerability Vs Rural Vulnerability

It is important to understand that urban level vulnerability is different from rural level vulnerability. In rural areas people could be vulnerable due to their caste and landlessness as there is a close nexus between land and caste. However, no such nexus exists in urban areas where caste is a hidden phenomenon. Income is the most important indicator in urban areas, since having a fixed income often gives a person the capacity to save.

In terms of urban areas we could argue that there are families who are suffering due to multiple sources of vulnerabilities. These multiple sources could include not having a fixed income, lack of savings, the presence of female headed households, lack of land ownership, vulnerable lifestyles, more dependents and falling into debt cycles. Some families suffer from an inter-generational transmission of poverty, causing them to be chronically poor. A household that is labelled as chronically poor is likely to have been suffering from those characteristics for the last five to ten years. They are passed on from parents to children who move forward with them, creating a vicious cycle that needs to be destroyed. Thus, when it comes to urban vulnerability, there are such families with inherent vulnerabilities. If these families are located in flood prone areas or landslide prone areas for instance, the negative impact a shock would create are blatantly apparent as they are not in a position to successfully cope with the situation because of the level of vulnerability.


Identifying the most vulnerable groups

According to Dr. Nishara, when identifying vulnerable groups, simply labelling a low-income settlement as a vulnerable area is not accurate since there may be certain groups of people who can successfully cope with shocks, risks and stress situations. Instead, we have to identify the most vulnerable group who suffer from chronic poverty, as it is this group that usually transfers all these characteristics to the next generation.

With respect to urban resilience, while it is this most vulnerable group that needs to be targeted, how this is done depends on the way we define and operationalize the concept of vulnerability. When trying to operationalize the definition, it is necessary to identify context specific indicators. For example, although caste is a very important factor when you take the Akmeemana area, it is not a factor in certain other areas in urban locations like Badowita or Bloumendhal. Therefore, the determination of which indicators to use and whether to focus on one indicator or on several indicators need to precede the identification of a vulnerable group. These determinations are vital in order to identify groups of people suffering from multiple sources of vulnerability. It is particularly important to avoid the tendency to target only income and expenditure as indicators, as these will not capture the said groups.

To simplify the identification process, Dr. Nishara suggested that the first questions that need to be asked when trying to identify a vulnerable group of people are; who is vulnerable and why they are vulnerable, what they need, and how they cope. When we try to explore climate change related natural hazards, this is the group of people who will become more and more vulnerable because they do not have the coping capacity to face the shocks that may come their way.

While it is important to increase the coping capacities of vulnerable families, it is doubly imperative to ensure that they do not become more vulnerable as a result of their coping strategies. For example, there is a difference between obtaining money from an informal money lender and borrowing money from a friend, since the former could lead a person to a vicious debt cycle. Furthermore, coping can also be viewed as a short-term strategy that is employed to deal with a situation, whereas enhancement strategies are more long-term strategies. A male breadwinner who has understood that his income is insufficient to run the household requesting his wife or offspring to engage in self-employment for instance, is an example of an enhancement strategy.

Given this context, Dr. Nishara iterated his main argument that when it comes to urban resilience, we need to identify the group of people who suffer from multiple sources of vulnerability and do what it takes to break the cycle of intergenerational transmission of poverty in order to make them more resilient and more secure. Unlike those in transient poverty who need a small push, the chronically poor group need more effort, time and resources to break away from this cycle.

Unfortunately, the need to devote more time and effort often prevents many stakeholders like the Government, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and other organisations like the UN from clearly targeting this group. When asked if government programmes do any better, Dr. Nishara mentioned that even though the highly politicized Samurdhi programme is a social welfare programme, that too, has not successfully identified households who suffer from chronic poverty. Similarly, census and statistics data is generally used to try and identify this group based on income and expenditure, which is incorrect, because the level of vulnerability cannot be assessed only based on those two indicators.


Moving Beyond Physical Vulnerabilities

Speaking of government bodies that play a part in the process of working with vulnerable groups, Dr. Nishara mentioned that the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) has identified certain hotspots such as landslide hotspots. However, that only covers physical vulnerability and does not look at social vulnerability. According to him, once they identify an area, they should ideally do a socio-economic study in order to identify the most and the least vulnerable families in that area. As NBRO engages in giving evacuation calls, introducing interventions, and as they are now involved in relocation as well, it is extremely important for them to identify the most vulnerable groups of people in the area.

With respect to relocation policies, it is useful to have different options to suit the needs of different groups. For example, in the case of the Tsunami, there were only two options – those who lived in a buffer zone had to relocate to a given place (donor built) and for those who lived outside the buffer zone whose property was partially or completely destroyed, the government gave Rs. 250,000 for them to construct a house (owner built) in four installments. However, the National Building Research Organization (NBRO) now offers several options. These include moving into a relocated settlement; moving into land given by NBRO and constructing one’s own house with a handout of Rs. 1.2 million; or purchasing a land (Rs. 400,000) and constructing a house (Rs. 1.2 million) with a handout of Rs. 1.6 million. Thus, having multiple options is very important for vulnerable households.

However, in Dr. Nishara’s view, the issue with NBRO is that since it is run by civil engineers and technical professionals who are heavily involved in building housing with resilient features, they do not devote sufficient attention to social vulnerability related issues. Similarly, most other projects too, which are funded by either international or multilateral organisations and implemented in collaboration with government institutions, do not have skilled personnel with sociological knowledge to address social problems such as gender related issues and social vulnerability related issues. Someone lacking such sociological knowledge would not be in a position to work as a social mobiliser or social safeguard officer.

Looking at Relocation as a Process

Dr. Nishara highlighted the fact that relocation is a process. It has different stages – before, soon after, sometime after, and long time after. The issue here is that most government authorities focus almost exclusively on the first two stages – before and soon after and neglect the others. That way, they can spend 2-5 years to complete a project, claim that their objectives have been achieved and pull back. Yet, what will happen to those vulnerable households sometime after and a long time after, considering that the project implementors have moved out? What generally happens is that these people go and complain to their respective Pradeshiya Sabha, Urban Council or DS office, which is a considerable burden for these entities. However, although these bodies have a mandate when it comes to Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), strengthening the capacities of such local government institutions is vital. For example, if you take the Kalutara area, some of the Pradeshiya Sabhas which are vulnerable to floods have already developed very good coping mechanisms. They can thereby successfully cope for the first four or five days in a hazard situation by giving dry rations, moving people into camps etc. Nevertheless, the question as to what happens next remains.

Unfortunately, the answer is that the Government will simply do a damage assessment and release some funds to reconstruct damaged houses, but these people will once again be exposed to landslides or floods.

This is why the Government has recently decided to implement relocation as a Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) strategy. The Climate Resilience Improvement Project II (CRIP II) supported by an international organization is a good example. As part of this project, they have identified a 50 foot stretch of flood prone land to introduce different interventions to protect people from floods, including relocation. However, although these people can be protected from floods, Dr. Nishara warned that if the implementer does not come up with a sustainable relocation policy that identifies relocation as a long-term process then displaced and relocated people will become more vulnerable to poverty and chronic poverty situations. Therefore, he stressed that firstly relocation should be identified as a process; secondly different policies should be introduced to cater to the most vulnerable group since they are the ones who need more time and resources to adopt; and thirdly there should be a mechanism in place to monitor and evaluate their progress for at least 10 years.


The Politics of Resettlement

Another major issue with regard to urban resilience in Sri Lanka is the politics of resettlement. Here, Dr. Nishara compared and contrasted the Sahaspura voluntary pilot project and the successful Lunawa relocation project in Colombo, to explain how research findings often fall on deaf ears, where we do not learn from our past experiences. Although planners and implementors often tell him that they try to come up with suitable policies, apparently they invariably change somewhere down the line. Therefore, in Dr. Nishara’s opinion when it comes to building urban resilience, these are the pressing issues that we need to tackle.



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