Date of Award

Summer 7-15-2014

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)

First Advisor

Max Boykoff

Second Advisor

Lisa Dilling

Third Advisor

Bruce Goldstein


The Zambezi River Basin is highly prone to floods and droughts. In the face of climate change, it will be critically important to address how such hazards become disasters. The Zambezi River Basin Initiative (ZRBI) was launched by the Red Cross in 2009 as a means to help communities cope with risk, by reducing their vulnerabilities and increasing their resilience to natural hazards. In Zambia, four communities - Sikaunzwe, Kasaya, Sikuzu and Situlu - were chosen as pilot sites for the ZRBI. To optimally aid these communities, the nature of vulnerability in the communities needs to be understood. Vulnerability, however, is difficult to measure, especially using standardized methods and indicators. Despite this, the Red Cross uses a standardized tool, vulnerability and capacity assessments (VCA), to measure vulnerability. In this study, I use a selection of VCA tools - baseline survey, hazards maps, focus group discussions, historical data collection - and interviews with Zambia Red Cross disaster management staff in the context of the conceptual frameworks for vulnerability analysis of coupled human-environment systems (Turner et al, 2003a) and barriers to adaptation (Jones and Boyd, 2010) to assess the vulnerability of communities to floods. I find that communities are vulnerable and unable to successfully adapt to floods largely due to their poverty, poor institutions, and lack of access to knowledge and technology. A major problem, however, is that communities are not involved in the design of the VCA and knowledge is not co-produced. Community exclusion may disincentivize community ownership of the VCA and related initiatives. Furthermore, while VCA data can be used to identify characteristics of vulnerability and identify levels of preparedness, they cannot be used to discern the underlying mechanisms that cause vulnerability. This is largely due to its negligence of the political, historical, and scalar dimensions of vulnerability. Without community engagement and understanding of the mechanisms of vulnerability, the ZRBI will fall short of its goals of reducing vulnerability and increasing resilience in the long-term.