Vulnerability as a multi-faceted phenomenon : a GIS-based data model for integrated development planning, environmental management and disaster risk reduction
Van Vuuren, Isak Dawid Jansen
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People and the surrounding environment are affected by development. In striving to improve their livelihoods, people have through their development activities and exploitation of natural resources contributed to the degradation of the environment. The environment is seen as the totality of the biosphere within which anthropological and ecological activities take place. These activities are influenced by forces of nature, and in some events referred to as hazards, which can cause disruption, injury and loss of life. This premise forms the basic concept of disaster, to which people and the environment react from a position of vulnerability. Vulnerability is multi-faceted construct that is primarily associated with social conditions. It relates to concepts of development planning and environmental management from a causal as well as a preventative perspective. Since disaster risk reduction has become the key focus of mankind’s reaction to disasters, the concept of vulnerability has also become a key focus for research, and has linked various research communities, particularly those involved in disaster risk management, climate change adaption and development research in a multi-disciplinary research environment. Socio-economic developments inspired mainly by the Second World War have since the 1940s focused research attention on development planning and disaster risk management. Hazards-based research made way for a focus on vulnerability research so as to reduce disaster risk. At the same time, an increased focus on development planning triggered a shift in philosophy away from a procedural rational planning approach to strategic, communicative planning. Disaster risk reduction along the lines of development planning has seen the emergence of a multi-disciplinary approach to vulnerability research. An apparent increase in disaster-related losses and environmental degradation has nonetheless changed people’s thoughts and alerted them to the unsustainability of the course of development. With the introduction of the Bruntland Report in 1987, the concept of sustainable development was introduced as a long-term environmental strategy. Sustainable development objectives have created a focus on the human–environment system and an understanding of relationships between anthropological and ecological entities. A special interest in spatial patterning and the geographic distribution of organisms has led to the development of landscape ecology as a study of spatial patterns and ecological processes. A need to capture environmental criteria in a computerised spatial database emerged in the 1960s, and gave rise to the development of geographic information systems (GIS) technology. GIS-based thinking about how the real world can be presented in various conceptualisations of data structures, led to the development of GIS science (GIScience). The latter was based on research by Michael Goodchild who seeks to redefine geographic concepts and their use in the context of geographic information systems. Hence GIS should be defined as a data-processing tool, as opposed to the popular view of a map-making tool. By approaching GIS from an information system perspective that includes the development of conceptual, logical and physical data models, a platform is provided for the integration of spatial-based disciplines such as development planning, environmental management and disaster risk management. A synthesis of the theoretical foundation of these three disciplines shows commonalities in terms of a multi-disciplinary approach, as well as a concern for the environment and for social upliftment based on sustainable development principles. They also share a strong spatial orientation, which provides for GIS technology to serve as an entry point for the integration of these disciplines. The aim of the current research was therefore to develop a GIS-based data model that would address the landscape-based relationships between spatial entities from a database design point of view. The model is founded on the principles of database design, specifically the concept of entity-relationship modelling. It also incorporates basic Boolean logic to identify the functioning of an entity in its landscape setting as either acceptable or unacceptable. This concept supports the analysis of environmental sensitivity and disaster risk from the level of small geographic units, thereby enabling vulnerability reduction efforts at a local scale. The research in hand was useful to define and investigate the theoretical grounding of development management, environmental management, disaster risk reduction and geographic information systems, as well as to identify their common focus areas. An analysis of GIS technology and the development of a data model provided a focus on database development as the key for providing an information-based entry point and integration of development management, environmental management, disaster risk management. A case study for an area near Richards Bay, where development affected a wetland by increased vulnerability to flooding, has proven the GIS-based data model to be valuable as a tool that can be implemented to reduce vulnerability through informed and improved planning practices.