Who is more vulnerable to environmental hazards?

This section identifies population groups who are more vulnerable to environmental hazards (including natural hazards and climate change) in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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

Who is more vulnerable?

A population is considered to be vulnerable when it is at risk of exposure to an environmental hazard and when it has insufficient resources to prepare for or cope with [1,2,3,4]. These hazards can include natural hazards such as flooding, earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunami, events related to climate change such as droughts, wildfires and rises in sea level, as well as air pollution, water pollution, infectious disease and other environmental hazards. 

Understanding population vulnerability is important to ensure that the needs of vulnerable population groups are considered in 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 vulnerable to environmental hazards if they are [1,2]:

  • more exposed to environmental hazards
  • more sensitive to the effects
  • less able to anticipate, cope with, or recover from the effects.

Potentially vulnerable populations include:

  • infants and children
  • older adults
  • people with lower socioeconomic status 
  • people with a chronic health condition
  • people with a disability. 

Other population groups may also be more vulnerable, depending on the hazard and circumstance. These population groups include people living in urban areas, people living in rural areas, people working in certain occupations, Māori, Pacific peoples, and people of other ethnic minorities. A range of other factors that can influence people's vulnerability to natural hazards are also described on the social vulnerability to natural hazards webpage. 

Infants and children

Infants and children 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 (eg 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, especially 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.

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.

People with a chronic health condition

People with chronic health conditions may be more susceptible to environmental hazards. Health conditions that may increase people's susceptibility include:

  • cardiovascular diseases, such as heart disease and stroke
  • respiratory diseases, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • diabetes
  • psychological distress
  • immune deficiency, such as organ transplant or HIV infection.

People with a chronic health condition may be at increased risk from environmental hazards, such as:

  • infectious diseases, due to weak body defenses
  • effects of air pollution, as their lungs are already working hard to cope at 'normal' levels of air pollution (this particularly affects people with respiratory disease and cardiovascular disease)
  • skin cancer (among people with low immunity).

For statistics about people with a chronic health condition, go to the people with a chronic health condition or disability 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 can include having:

  • a physical impairment that limits day to day activities
  • a sensory impairment, for example poor vision or hearing
  • learning difficulties
  • a psychological or psychiatric impairment.

For statistics about people living with a disability, go to the people with a chronic health condition or disability 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 and other ethnic groups, go to the ethnic 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.

Other factors relating to social vulnerability to natural hazards

People's vulnerability to natural hazards can be affected by their resilience to natural hazards. Resilience to natural hazards can be influenced by a number of factors, including:

  • having enough money to cope with crises/losses
  • social connectedness
  • knowledge, skills and awareness to cope with natural hazards
  • safe, secure and healthy housing
  • having enough food and water to cope with shortage
  • decision-making and leadership.

For more information, go to the social vulnerability to natural hazards webpage, or read the findings from our social vulnerability indicators project.


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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.

3. Ebi K, Kovats R, Menne B. 2006. An Approach for Assessing Human Health Vulnerability and Public Health Interventions to Adapt to Climate Change. Environmental Health Perspectives 114(12): 1930-1934. doi: 10.1289/ehp.8430

4. Adger NA. 2006. Vulnerability. Global Environmental Change, 16, 268-281

5. Landrigan PJ. 2004. Children as a vulnerable population. International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health, 17 (1), 175-177.

6. Team V, Manderson L. 2011. Social and public health effects of climate change in the '40 South'. WIRE's Climate Change, 2, 902-918.

7. Green G, Jackish J, Zamaro G. 2015. Healthy cities as catalysts for caring and supportive environments. Health Promotion International, 30 (S1), i199-i107.

8. Tuohy R, Stephens C, Johnson D. 2015. Disaster preparedness: older adults' perspectives. International Journal of Emergency Management, 11 (1), 36-61.

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

10. Phillips BD, Morrow BH. 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. 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 MC, Evans MB, Kent ST, Johnson E, Threadgill SL, 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 MJ, Harrell GS, Harrell EB. 2008. 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

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