What are vulnerable populations?

This section identifies population groups who are more at risk from environmental hazards in New Zealand.

This type of information can help to develop strategies, policies and measures, to lessen the impacts.

On this page:

What are vulnerable populations? 
Who is more at risk? 
Infants and children
Older adults
People living with a disability
Minority ethnicities
Single parent households
People with lower socioeconomic status
Living in a rural area

What are vulnerable populations?

A population is considered to be vulnerable when it is at risk of exposure to an environmental hazard and that it has insufficient resources to prepare for or cope with [1,2,3,4]. Environmental hazards include: flooding, earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunami, events related to climate change such as droughts, wildfires and rises in sea level, as well as pollution and infectious disease. Having insufficient resources to cope hinders people from being able to prepare for an environmental hazard and makes it more difficult to recover afterwards.  Resources that may be required when facing an environmental hazard include:

  • Having family, friends and people in the wider community who can help you out
  • Having good telecommunications and transport links
  • Having sufficient income to cover associated costs

Who is more at risk?

This section identifies population groups who are more at risk from environmental hazards in New Zealand. It is important to know who in the population is more vulnerable to ensure their needs are considered throughout the planning process. This enables environmental hazards to be prevented where possible, or, if not possible, their impact can be minimised. Identifying vulnerability also enables resources to be directed more effectively to those who have the greatest need [1].

People can be more at risk to environmental hazards if they are [1,2]:

  • more exposed to environmental hazards
  • more sensitive to the effects
  • less able to cope with the effects.

Potentially vulnerable populations include:

  • infants and children
  • older adults
  • Māori
  • minority ethnicities
  • people living with a disability
  • single parent households
  • low socio-economic status  groups
  • people living in rural areas

Infants and children

Infants and young children (under five years) are more susceptible than adults to a range of environmental hazards.

  • Young children (under five years) have limited mobility. They depend on others to move them out of dangerous situations.
  • Young children are less able to perceive risk.
  • Young children’s behaviour includes lots of hand-to-mouth activity and play close to the ground, which exposes them more to some hazards, (e.g. lead from soil) [5,6,7].
  • Children are still developing and growing, which makes them more susceptible to toxins and illness.
  • Children’s breathing rate is higher than adults, making them more susceptible to air pollution.
  • Children’s younger age and longer life expectancy means that they may yet be affected by some hazardous substances with long lag (latency) periods.

Pregnant women and their unborn children may also be at increased risk from environmental hazards.

For population statistics about children, go to the age profile webpage.

Older adults

Older adults (aged 65 years and over) can be more affected by environmental hazards.

  • Older adults may have limited mobility, strength and balance. They are also more likely to have poor eyesight and hearing. This means they are in one place for longer periods, and depend on others to move them out of dangerous areas [4,7]. 
  • Older adults have higher rates of chronic disease, which can make them more sensitive to environmental hazards like air pollution and infectious diseases. 
  • Older adults are more sensitive to dehydration on very hot days, and the effects of cold on cold days.

In particular, older people who live alone may be at more risk from natural hazards, particularly if they don’t have other people to help them if needed [8].

For population statistics about older adults, go to the age profile webpage.


Māori are often more vulnerable to environmental risks, similar to indigenous populations in many other countries.  There are several reasons.

  • Māori can be more exposed to environmental risks, for example having higher rates of second-hand smoke exposure.
  • Māori can be more sensitive to environmental changes. For example, the Māori economy is especially reliant on primary industries like farming, which are sensitive to climate change [11].
  • Māori can have less capacity to respond to environmental risks. For example, Māori have disproportionately low incomes compared to many other ethnic groups.

However, these causes of vulnerability need to be balanced against factors that will increase their coping capacity.  In general, Māori have strong and supportive whānau/community networks [12].  Many Māori also possess traditional knowledge about the environment that is a valuable asset in a changing environment.

For population statistics about Māori, go to the ethnic profile webpage.

People living with a disability

A person living with a disability cannot easily carry out day to day tasks [9]. People living with a disability may be more susceptible to environmental hazards and will find it more difficult to respond to them. They may also be more socially isolated and have a lower income due to their disability [10].  Living with a disability includes having:

  • A chronic health condition – such as respiratory illness, diabetes, psychological distress or a compromised immune system
  • A physical impairment which limits day to day activities
  • A sensory impairment, for example poor sight or hearing
  • Learning difficulties

For statistics about people living with a disability, go to the people living with a disability and people with chronic health conditions webpages.

Minority ethnicities

Minority ethnicities (for example Pacific peoples), are over-represented amongst those living in poorer neighbourhoods and are likely to have fewer social and economic resources [7].  Minority ethnicities are less healthy than other groups in society [13]. This may be due to greater risk of exposure to environmental hazards, difficulty in accessing health services and/ or other environmental factors, such as second-hand smoke and household crowding.

For population statistics about Pacific peoples, go to the ethnic profile webpage.

Single parent households

Single parent households with dependent children are more likely to live in poorer neighbourhoods and have fewer economic resources. Those with young (pre-school) children may also be more socially isolated [10,14]. This can have an impact on how they cope with and respond to environmental hazards. For example they may require extra assistance to escape from natural hazards such as floods, earthquakes or tsunami.

People with lower socioeconomic status

People with lower socioeconomic status often have less capacity to cope with the effects of environmental risks.  For example, people on low incomes generally have fewer resources and may not know of people who can help them in times of crisis. They are also more likely to live in a hazard-prone environment, for example on marginal land and/or in poor quality, overcrowded housing. People with lower socioeconomic status often have less access to transport and services (such as telecommunications) that they can use in an emergency [4,6,10,14].

The New Zealand Index of Deprivation (NZDep) provides a summary deprivation score for small areas (meshblocks and census area units) [15]. The NZDep can be used to identify areas where people are more socioeconomically deprived.

The NZDep index incorporates low income, as well as a range of other socioeconomic factors (such as people who are renting, unemployed, lack qualifications, single-parent families, no access to a vehicle).

For statistics about socioeconomic deprivation and NZDep, go to the socioeconomic deprivation profile webpage.

Living in a rural area

People living in rural areas are specifically vulnerable to environmental hazards. This is because they may be difficult to reach in an emergency due to their remote location. They also have less access to services such as shops, health clinics and emergency response services (police, fire and ambulance). In addition people living in rural areas are more likely to work in primary industries, such as forestry and farming, which are more susceptible to climate change [11]. However, people in rural areas are often more self-reliant and so are better equipped to cope with emergency situations.

For more information on living in rural areas go to the urban-rural profile webpage.


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2. DANIDA. 2000. Who Suffers? Identifying the Vulnerable Groups. Paper presented at the DANIDA Workshop Papers: Improving the Urban Environment and Reducing Poverty, Copenhagen, Denmark.

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9. Statistics New Zealand. (2014, 06 17). Disability Survey 2013. Retrieved from StatsNZ: https://www.stats.govt.nz/information-releases/disability-survey-2013

10. Phillips, B. D., & Morrow, B. H. (2007). Social Science Research Needs: Focus on Vulnerable Populations, Forecasting and Warnings. Natural Hazards Review, 8 (3), 61-68.

11  Reisinger A, Kitching R, Chiew F, Hughes L, Newton P, Schuster S, et al. 2014. Australasia. In V Barros, C Field, D Dokken, M Mastrandrea, K Mach, T Bilir, M Chatterjee, K Ebi, Y Estrada, R Genova, B Girma, E Kissel, A Levy, S MacCracken, P Mastrandrea and L White (Eds.), Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part B: Regional Aspects Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.

12. Statistics New Zealand. (2011, June). Social Cohesion in New Zealand: From the New Zealand General Social Survey 2008. Retrieved from Statistics New Zealand: http://www.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/people_and_communities/Well-being/social-cohension-nz.aspx

13. Berhard, M. C., Evans, M. B., Kent, S. T., Johnson, E., Threadgill, S. L., Tyson, S., et al. (2013). Identifying environmental health priorities in underserved populations: a study of rural versus urban communities. Public Health, 127, 994-1004.

14. Zakour, M. J., Harrell, G. S., & Harrell, E. B. (2008, 09 22). Access to Disaster Services. Journal of Social Service Research , 27-54.

15. Atkinson J, Salmond C, Crampton P. 2014. NZDep2013 Index of Deprivation. Wellington: Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington. Available online:http://www.otago.ac.nz/wellington/research/hirp/otago020194.html