Pulwarty, R. S., K. Broad, and T. Finan, 2004: El Niño events forecasts and decision-making. In Mapping Vulnerability: Disasters, Development and People, G. Bankoff, G. Frerks, and T. Hilhorst (Eds.), Earthscan, 83-98.


This chapter explores the concepts of vulnerability and equity in the context of the production and use of scientific information as tools in mitigation and for responding to climatic events. 'Vulnerability' has been defined in terms of risk and exposure (likelihood of a particular event and attendant economic loss), root causes and dynamic pressures that produce unsafe conditions and the capacity to act (Wisner, 1993; Pulwarty and Riebsame, 1997; Comfort et al, 1999). Equity here is taken to relate to rules and rule-making processes, and to the exchange and distribution of material or non-material resources in a specific context. Much insight has been provided by political ecologists and others regarding vulnerability as a result of actions prescribed at different scales (international, regional, national, and sub-national) over time. As has long been known, reducing social vulnerability does not depend upon the precision of forecasts of particular physical hazards alone. However, as evident in the case of El Niño-related risks, both preparedness and exacerbation of vulnerable conditions may be influenced by forecasts of events (for example, information about an impending event) as much as by the occurrence of the events themselves. Thus, the decision-making process into which such information is placed, and the associated benefits and inequities created require careful attention.

As a result of changes in funding since the end of the Cold War, there is an increasingly common trend towards justifying scientific research on its societal relevance. The post-Cold War years are witnessing an ascendant rhetoric of a 'culture of accountability', where research-funding agencies have been increasingly transformed from institutions primarily responsible for maintaining basic science in university and labs into instruments for attaining national technological, economic and social priorities through the funding of research projects and programmes (Nowotny et al, 1999). The result is an increasingly distributed knowledge production system in which communication and alliances increasingly develop across existing institutional boundaries (Gibbon, 1999). Nowhere is this ascendance more visible than in the international set of activities that result in forecasting El Niño events and their impacts at local levels.

Based on extensive fieldwork, this chapter draws upon concepts of social justice and technology management studies to show that, while there may exist significant potential benefits, 'knowledge-based' interventions can and do simplify complex situations and strengthen existing assumptions and myths about the 'powerlessness' of impacted people. As is well known, governments at different scales are usually already aware of problems exacerbated by local climate anomalies but their practice does not always reflect this awareness (Glantz, 2001). Interventions undertaken under such conditions can continue or can accelerate existing processes of social differentiation through differential access and the use of information. 'Inclusion' is increasingly viewed as a means to overcome distributional inequities. However, for the most vulnerable groups, inclusion many cases usually means accepting only subordinate positions based upon distribution within the power structures, without an increase in rights or responsibilities. As we hope to show below, clarifying the nature of, and barriers to, effective procedure and participation requires renewed attention from students of social vulnerability.

Cases are drawn from the 1997 to 1998 El Niño event as it affected Peruvian artisanal fisheries and water and agricultural management in Northeast Brazil (see Figure 6.1). These were amongst the earliest regions settled by Europeans in the New World. In both locations, the relative climatic experiences have been documented over long periods. Spanish Conquistadors recorded the occurrence of El Niño in Peru in 1525. Northeast Brazil was the site of the original Portuguese settlement 500 years ago. In addition, Peru and Brazil have been two of the most studied regions in terms of climatic impacts (especially related to El Niño) in the world (Diaz and Markgraf, 1992).

We discuss how technology-based knowledge about potential hazards (for example, the forecast of an El Niño event and its projected impacts) interacts with existing vulnerabilities. We identify discourses that legitimize dominant representations of society and the environment. The study further outlines important differences among local, national and international decision-making processes in responding to actual and forecasted El Niño-related impacts. It highlights the homogenizing assumptions about culture, history, and capacity that are engaged in strictly technocratic approaches to risk assessment and management. Emphasis is placed on how the relationships between political and 'expert'-derived power determines which actors are seen as 'legitimate' developers of risk messages and whose view of reality is represented, pursued and secured. These processes have distinct influences on post-event claims of the 'success' of international programmes. We investigate why such technocratic responses prevail even when there has been long-established work on the social construction of vulnerability. We argue that studies of dynamic pressures and 'capacity' should include assessment of impediments to flows of knowledge and information and assessments of the policies and practices that give rise to these impediments. A plea is made for a stronger interpretive and participatory role for analysts of vulnerability in unwrapping and making transparent the particular decision contexts and organizational processes in which knowledge is developed and used.