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Social Vulnerability and Social Justice: Government’s Role in a More Equitable Society

Social vulnerability is a pre-existing condition that affects a society’s ability to prepare for and recover from a disruptive event. Social vulnerability is applied primarily to natural hazards and disasters and is the counterpart to resilience or the ability of a community to recover from such events. More often than not social vulnerability is the product of social inequalities that create susceptibility.

Underserved communities face chronic emergent conditions associated with inadequate access to health care, education, public safety and, often times, poor infrastructure and crippled local economies. The National Association of Social Workers defines social justice as the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights opportunities. Many minority and low income communities are faced with a crisis of inequity that contributes to social vulnerability. The disproportionate burden of social vulnerability in these communities inextricably links social vulnerability to social justice.

Susan Cutter, Carolina Distinguished Professor of Geography at the University of South Carolina, writes that just as there is variation in the physical landscape, the landscape of social inequity increases the division between rich and poor and leads to increasing social vulnerability for some. But the landscape of social inequity is more than socio-economic. The U.S. Department of Agriculture report, “Social Vulnerability and Climate Change,” from August 2011 is a synthesis of literature on social vulnerability and equity in the context of climate change.

The report explains that the effects of climate change are expected to be more severe for some segments of society than others because of geographic location, the degree of association with climate-sensitive environments, and unique cultural, economic, or political characteristics of particular landscapes and human populations. The disproportion impact of climate change on socially vulnerable communities makes climate change a social justice issue.

In addition to economic, geographic and climate related social vulnerabilities, indigenous communities also face threats to cultural integrity that increase social vulnerability. Wade Davis anthropologist, ethno-botanist and explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society observes that just as there is a biological web of life there is also a cultural and spiritual web of life the “ethnosphere.” Davis describes the ethnosphere as the sum total of all the thoughts, beliefs, myths, and institutions brought into being by the human imagination, it is humanity’s greatest legacy embodying everything we have produced as an adaptive species. The erosion of cultural integrity is profound in its degradation of the ethnosphere and in its implications for social vulnerability and social justice in indigenous communities.

The complexity of the following Alaska example of social vulnerability is not fully reflected in this narrative, but the story as told here helps to illustrate the points discussed above. A coastal Alaska Native community draws its water from a river several miles from the village twice a year as weather allows. The water is pumped through a surface transmission line to two large water tanks in which the water is stored, treated, and drawn from throughout the year. Although a conventional piped water and sewer system serves the school, teacher housing and clinic, the households in the community are not served by the piped water and sewer system. A central watering point, Laundromat and showers serve the community. People collect water from the water point or traditional sources and use “honey buckets,” five-gallon plastic buckets for human excreta collection, transport and disposal.

The community’s economy is largely based on the customary and traditional practice of subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering. Conventional economic indicators, local unemployment rate at more three times the state of Alaska rate and one resident in five with income below the poverty level, underscore a fragile cash based economy.

A recipe for disaster:

The coastal community, increasingly subject to the forces of flooding and erosion, is identified for future relocation and for this reason government agencies choose not to construct costly improvements to the community’s water and sewer infrastructure.

Limited local government revenue, high cost of fuel, and financial instability conspire to delay the community from pumping water from the river to fill the water tanks. With the water tanks nearly depleted, a dramatic storm event badly damages the water line from the river to the village and results in water quality changes in the river that make the water un-potable, the community is nearly without water and life in the community is severely disrupted.

A multi-agency and community emergency response successfully restores the water line, the post storm event water quality in the river improves, and financial assistance is made available to the community so that it can begin to pump water from the river to the water tanks.

Then, the community is hit by an early winter freeze that makes it impossible to pump water before the water tanks can be filled and the community faces a critical water shortage and the real possibility that they will run out of water in the winter months to come, and the crisis continues.

It is difficult to identify a specific government action that could have been taken to avert this disaster now or in the future. What we can say is that social vulnerabilities, if left unaddressed, do not go away of their own accord and that unaddressed social vulnerabilities always come back to the government in the most inconvenient and costly ways. In the end, it is the minority and low-income communities in chronic states of emergency and social vulnerability that bear the disproportionate burden of disaster resulting in social injustice.

In government there is often complacency in the acceptance of inequity. Government managers fear the consequences of parting from familiar program policies and practices. They fear equity because they fear precedent setting outcomes that would forever change the roles and responsibilities of their programs. Stephen Cornell Director of the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy and Director of the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona observed that government actions with American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments that promote self governance, protect cultural integrity and strengthen local economies can begin to address societal inequity. These actions are not inherent to most government organizations. But it is in the accumulation of these actions that government agencies can emerge at a place of social justice.


Author: Joe Sarcone is a regular contributor to PA TIMES. His other commentaries include: A Leadership of Public Service, Work at the Interface: Governments in Service to Indigenous People, Work in the Gap: Governments in Service to Underserved Populations, and A Leadership of Public Service.


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