A review of vulnerability indicators for deltaic social–ecological systems

Zita Sebesvari, Fabrice G. Renaud, Susanne Haas, Zachary Tessler, Michael Hagenlocher, Julia Kloos, Sylvia Szabo, Alejandro Tejedor, Claudia Kuenzer

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


The sustainability of deltas worldwide is under threat due to the consequences of global environmental change (including climate change) and human interventions in deltaic landscapes. Understanding these systems is becoming increasingly important to assess threats to and opportunities for long-term sustainable development. Here, we propose a simplified, yet inclusive social–ecological system (SES)-centered risk and vulnerability framework and a list of indicators proven to be useful in past delta assessments. In total, 236 indicators were identified through a structured review of peer-reviewed literature performed for three globally relevant deltas—the Mekong, the Ganges–Brahmaputra–Meghna and the Amazon. These are meant to serve as a preliminary “library” of potential indicators to be used for future vulnerability assessments. Based on the reviewed studies, we identified disparities in the availability of indicators to populate some of the vulnerability domains of the proposed framework, as comprehensive social–ecological assessments were seldom implemented in the past. Even in assessments explicitly aiming to capture both the social and the ecological system, there were many more indicators for social susceptibility and coping/adaptive capacities as compared to those relevant for characterizing ecosystem susceptibility or robustness. Moreover, there is a lack of multi-hazard approaches accounting for the specific vulnerability profile of sub-delta areas. We advocate for more comprehensive, truly social–ecological assessments which respond to multi-hazard settings and recognize within-delta differences in vulnerability and risk. Such assessments could make use of the proposed framework and list of indicators as a starting point and amend it with new indicators that would allow capturing the complexity as well as the multi-hazard exposure in a typical delta SES.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)575-590
Number of pages16
JournalSustainability Science
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 1 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The research is part of the international Belmont Forum project BF-DELTAS "Catalyzing action toward sustainability of deltaic systems with an integrated modeling framework for risk assessment" funded in part by the German Research Foundation (DFG) (Grant no.RE 3554/1-1) and NERC (Grant no. NE/L008726/1). Zita Sebesvari and Fabrice Renaud would like to acknowledge the funding provided by DFG. We are grateful to the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016, Springer Japan.

Copyright 2016 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Indicators
  • Multiple hazards
  • Social–ecological systems
  • Sustainable deltas
  • Vulnerability assessment frameworks

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