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Vulnerability produced by social systems in response to natural and related disasters has recently become the object of active research and discussion. The present work is designed to discuss socially-produced vulnerability, and the application of the theoretical concepts to the practical knowledge and the events in the real world. In this work we will speak about vulnerability to the natural disasters in Puerto Rico.

The choice of Puerto Rico and its aid organizations is based on the assumption that disaster vulnerability is a complex notion; it includes various aspects, most of which are social, strengthened and aggravated by the natural, ecological and cultural ones. Based on the ecological and cultural conditions, Puerto Rico is very vulnerable towards nature changes and weather conditions.

Puerto-Rico has a long history of natural disasters; as a result of changing social and demographic patterns there has been a significant increase in population density, the proportion of the older population and an increasing concentration of residents in flood and landslide prone areas. This is why combination of social and ecological factors makes it interesting to see the social and ecological vulnerability to disasters at the example of this country. Disasters influence both material and social worlds, and this disaster vulnerability should be viewed as a complex notion.

According to Oliver-Smith (2002), to explore how socially produced vulnerabilities are expressed environmentally, the links between the increase and expansion of disasters amid the dominant ideas, institutions and practices of the contemporary world must be established. It is necessary to recall that along with the detachment of nature and society achieved by the eighteenth century philosophy and political science, the fortunes of humanity were specifically linked to a set of material practices largely structured market exchange.

It is essential to note her, that one of the core reasons for making the population vulnerable to natural disasters has been the fact that nature was turned from the means of achieving welfare to the goal of this welfare, and this is why the vulnerability which the world population, and particularly the population of Puerto-Rico experienced, is for sure socially-produced.

The social structure of the population in Puerto Rico displays very serous differences in the standards of living, and thus socially-produced vulnerability to disasters widely varies depending on the sector of population involved. (Cardona, 2004) The island vulnerability to disasters is caused by the following social factors: – geographic location of the island; – high population density; – high number of households located in the zones of disaster high- risk – high rates of poverty; – low levels of education;

– lack of disaster mitigation activities. This is why Puerto-Rico is a bright example of the country in which disaster vulnerability is expressed through a high amount of the social factors, which are combined and thus produce an effect of convergence, making the disaster vulnerability of the population extremely high; this s why aid organizations working in the disaster vulnerable areas of the country should expect and understand the social factors influencing this disaster vulnerability.

As the continuation of discussion the social vulnerability to disasters in Puerto Rico and the role of aid organizations in their decreasing, it is essential to understand that both the wealthy and the poor are implicated in the construction of vulnerability.

Oliver-Smith (2002) writes, that the wealthy, through the excessive consumption of market-accessed resources such as secure land and water, withdraw large quantities of them from the use by the general population; moreover, in the continued reproduction of their wealth, they are frequently involved in despoiling public goods such as the air and the oceans, thus engendering further vulnerabilities for the general population.

As for the poor, as a result of this situation they are meant to locate their households in the most dangerous regions from the viewpoint of the disaster frequency, thus increasing their social vulnerability towards those disasters. In relation to Puerto Rico, the described factors play an important role in defining the social vulnerability of its population to the natural disasters; the geographic location of the island gives clear understanding of why this island is an interesting object of discussion.

The disasters are not surprising and are not novel for Puerto Rico, and aid organizations are aware of the principal measures which should be taken as soon as the event takes place, but they should be expected as a result of certain weather events, and thus comprise a number of complex aspects, the most important of which is a social one.

Oliver Smith (2002) states, that in natural and technological disasters all dimensions of the physical, biological, and social systems are involved. Furthermore, he states that anthropologists can largely contribute into the research of the social disaster vulnerability because they are able to produce a high level of knowledge within the frames of the social context of the disaster vulnerability.

It should be assumed, that this viewpoint is partially correct, but it might look more appropriate that when weather event intersects with other aspects (multidimensional environments, including ecology, culture, social structure, etc) an inter-disciplinary issue appears, and in the case with Puerto-Rico the disaster vulnerability is the very multi-disciplinary notion, but as we speak about socially-produced vulnerability, the principal attention is paid to this side of the problem.

The assessment of vulnerability in Puerto Rico is concentrated around the conceptualization of capacity of individuals to response to weather hazards based on their social structure and position. It is understood that the capacity to response to weather disasters decreases with the lower social positions of this or that layer of the Puerto Rico’s population. An interesting formula can be used here for the definition of the social vulnerability not only for the situation within Puerto Rico but to be applied in various dimensions of the disaster vulnerability analysis:

Social Vulnerability = f (population density + proportion of children + proportion of elderly + proportion of female headed households with children + proportion of vehicle tenure + proportion of phone tenure + proportion of renters + proportion of labor force unemployed + proportion of population wit physical and mental disabilities + proportion of population with low education). (Wisner, Cannon & Blaikie, 2004)

This formula should be taken into account by all aid organizations which work in Puerto Rico; actually, aid organizations are the entities which should exercise their knowledge and experience including all social and cultural factors; the principal mistake which is made is that they mostly pay attention to the elimination of the ecological consequences, while paying attention to the social structure will decrease the level of negative consequences in the country and thus will ensure effective collaboration before and after the disaster.

Noting that the major of these factors contribute into the social structure of Puerto Rico, it becomes obvious why this country is constantly shown as potentially highly vulnerable to the nature disasters. The understanding of this social structure and the reasons of vulnerability is essential for the development of the technological solutions which will help in decreasing the level of vulnerability among the local population.

The principal problem is the floods of the Western Puerto Rico’s coast, and as it has been said, even due to the fact that these disasters are not novel to the population, the social structure makes them extremely vulnerable to every new display of the nature’s character. Vulnerability is a concept which makes it possible to bring the nature from ‘out there’ and apply its notions and behavioral patterns to the social structure of society.

It is essential to understand that natural disasters are the notions which are multidimensional; in the modern world the notion of disaster vulnerability has long stopped being an ecological factor only; it is mainly determined by the social and cultural structure of the population. Cultural geographers, anthropologists and sociologists share a common concern with the functions of the ongoing social order and the conditions that make it vulnerable t the effects of the natural hazards, as Bankoff (2003) puts it.

Thus, the social aspect of disaster vulnerability is the implication which should be brought by the further studies as one of the essential its components.


Bankoff, G 2003, Cultures of Disaster: Society and Natural Hazard in the Philippines, London and New York: Routledge Curson, ch. 8. Cardona, O 2004, ‘The need to rethink the concepts of vulnerability and risk from a holistic perspective: a necessary review and criticism for effective risk management’. In: Bankoff, G Mapping Vulnerability: Disasters, Development and People, Sterling, VA.

Mojica, RR 2001, ‘Preliminary report on the floods over Puerto Rico during May 6-7 2001’. National Weather Service Forecast Preliminary report, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Oliver Smith, A 2002, ‘Theorizing disasters: nature, culture and power’, in: S. Hoffman and A. Oliver-Smith (eds) Catastrophe and Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster, Santa Fe. Wisner, BT, Cannon, I & Blaikie, P 2004, At risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters, 2nd edition, New York: Routledge.

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