Chapter 3: Human Vulnerability to Environmental Change

Understanding vulnerability
How people are affected
Responding to human vulnerability

Rosita Pedro was born in a tree, high above the raging, muddy waters of the Limpopo River in full flood. Rosita was born vulnerable, how much more precarious a start to life could anybody have? The reason for Rosita’s plight, and that of her mother Sofia, was a mixture of natural phenomena and human impacts. The floods that devastated Mozambique in March 2000 were a natural occurrence but their severity was exacerbated by poor land management, serious erosion of wetlands and overgrazing of grasslands in the upper watersheds of the Limpopo river in Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Wetlands absorb excess water like a sponge and release it slowly into a watershed or river system, so their shrinking removes that safety valve. Grasslands damaged by overgrazing and burning had become compacted and hardened, allowing water to flow off into rivers instead of seeping into the soil. In addition, meteorologists attributed the torrential rains to exceptionally warm surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean and Mozambique Channel, possibly associated with global warming. In the resulting disaster, several hundred people were killed and thousands displaced and impoverished (Guardian 2000, Stoddard 2000).