Doing Vulnerability Assessments

Vulnerability describes, according to the IPCC, the degree to which a system is susceptible to, and unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes. Vulnerability is a function of the character, magnitude, and rate of climate change and variation to which a system is exposed, its sensitivity, and its adaptive capacity.

Vulnerability assessments is defined by the GIZ as methods that measure the vulnerability of an exposure unit or system, e.g. the vulnerability of a community or a natural system like watersheds or ecosystems. Vulnerability assessments identify, quantify and prioritize the vulnerabilities of that system.  In general, it is possible to distinguish between top-down vulnerability assessments approaches and bottom-up approaches. In integrated approaches elements of both top-down and bottom-up are combined to complement each other.

In order to be able to generate and implement appropriate climate change adaptation measures, one needs to know which risks climate change poses to a population. Identifying these can be done with the help of a vulnerability assessment. Such assessments allow practitioners and decision-makers alike to determine where, in which sector and by whom their support is most urgently needed, and in which form. The vulnerability assessment thus allows that targeted, more effective and sustainable adaptation activities can be conducted.

Vulnerability Assessment for Socio-Ecological Systems (VASES)

An adaptive and innovative framework has been developed to provide practical guidance for identifying all relevant factors when  conducting a vulnerability assessment (and initial identification of EbA options)  at both the provincial (macro) level, and at pilot hot spots at community (micro) level. This approach is called Vulnerability Assessment for Socio-Ecological Systems (VASES).


The methodology of the VASES-approach is applied to provide in-depth information about climate change, its impacts on society, economy and ecology. Vulnerability assessments are conducted in two main stages, first at the province-wide level, and then subsequently at the community level or local-scale in selected areas.

The province-wide VA is intended to enable a province to get a comprehensive overview of climate change issues and to identify priorities for action. The province-level VA is “top down”, and uses existing information on the province’s ecological, social and economic assets; its history of climate-related hazards, as well as development trends and down-scaled climate change projections to identify priority climate change adaptation issues and general province-wide EbA solutions. The province-wide assessment also provides the basis for identifying a short list of specific sites for selection of the local level VA.

The local level VA then focuses on a selected area and repeats the analysis of ecological, social and economic factors at the local level, applying more conventional bottom-up methods of field work, local data collection and stakeholder participation, to better understand locally important climate change issues and identify specific, implementable EbA solutions.

While many methodologies for climate change vulnerability assessments identify the need to focus the assessments and climate change adaptation work on “Socio-Ecological Systems” (SES), none of them provide a methodology for identifying an SES, assessing impacts of climate change on SESs, or even a clear definition of what constitutes an SES. SESs are here defined as

“complex bio-geo-physical units together with social and institutional actors and their activities.”

The concept recognizes that social, economic and ecological systems are inextricably linked, and that any separation is artificial and arbitrary. While SESs may be delineated by either spatial or functional boundaries, and their scale can be very variable, in practice they are still difficult to identify conclusively and consistently. Therefore, it is recommended to first identify and map SESs across the entire province, and then to describe priority SESs as the entry point for further steps of the vulnerability assessment, and as the targets for implementation of EbA recommendations.

At the same time, the VASES approach recognizes that not everything in a province can be neatly categorized as belonging to a single type of SES. Some things cut across many different SESs. For this reason, the concept of Key Economic Activities/Assets (KEA) is also being introduced to include both large scale infrastructure that supports economic activity across the province (e.g. in the transport, energy and water sectors), as well as Special Economic Zones (SEZs).

The VASES approach consists of four main components (these are essentially the same at the provincial and the local/community levels):

  1. Scoping the context for climate change vulnerability assessment and EbA
  • Baseline and trends in ecology, society and economy
  • Identification of major climate-related hazards and their trends
  1. Identification and prioritisation of socio-ecological systems (SES) and key economic assets (KEA)
  2. Vulnerability Assessment for priority SESs and KEAs
  • Climate Change Impact Assessment
  • Adaptive Capacity Assessment
  1. Identification of EbA and other related options


To download the report on the overall vulnerability approach, please click here

The EbA Vulnerability Assessment also gets mentioned in the UNFCCC Synthesis report ‘Adaptation planning, implementation and evaluation addressing ecosystems and areas such as water resources’, where it is named as a tool for assessing the benefits that ecosystem-based adaptation provides towards enhancing resilience and reducing emissions.

Find the Synthesis report here.

Vulnerability Assessments Quang Binh

Vulnerability Assessments Ha Tinh

Further readings and useful links

GIZ. (2013). Vulnerability Assessments – Experiences of GIZ with Vulnerability Assessments at the local level. Bonn and  Eschborn: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit.

IPCC Glossary:

UNFCCC. (2017). Adaptation planning, implementation and evaluation addressing ecosystems and areas such as water resources – Synthesis report by the secretariat. Bonn: UNFCCC Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice.