With the increasing problems of global change, ecological security has become a research focus in the world. Coastal areas that are exposed to both human impact and natural changes are vulnerable. The maintenance of coastal ecological security is a great challenge. Assessment of vulnerability is essential for identifying and recognizing the coastal ecological security status. However, there is a lack of criteria and standards for vulnerability assessment.

We proposed a methodological framework of vulnerability analysis and assessment and used Xiamen city as a case study. Surveys were undertaken to assess the states of Xiamen coastal environment and resources, and the issues associated with human activities. Stakeholders were interviewed about their attitudes regarding Xiamen environment and resources. Constraints of development and management were identified. The methodological framework was presented as a tool to help identify relative vulnerability in order to prioritize actions and assess the vulnerability implications of management and policy decisions.

Introduction

Coastal areas are currently experiencing intense and sustained environmental pressures from a wide range of driving forces such that environmental change has greatly threatened coastal ecological security. This environmental problem is now well recognized as a security problem in academia and government (Westing, 1989; Homer-Dixon, 1994). Concepts of security are no longer limited to the military form, but other potential, economic, ecological and social aspects are included. The environment regarding human health and means of livelihoods are of increasing concern to the government and public. The task of coastal management is likely to be more difficult because of the consequences of coastal environmental change. However, most scientific assessments of such risks have focused on the environmental changes themselves and until recently devoted relatively little attention to changes in ecosystems and in society. Questions about the vulnerability of social and ecological systems are emerging as a central focus of assessment of global environmental risks (Clark et al., 2000; IHDP, 2000). This assessment could help us to harmonize the assessment of different global environmental risks, and to learn more about the interaction between environmental change and human security, by applying quantitative methods to historical and current data. Assessment can also be of assistance in assessing future ‘hot-spots’, which should be given priority for further study.

This paper sketches an integrated framework for vulnerability-based analyses and assessments by using Xiamen city as a case study, so that policies may be formulated for the reduction of coastal environmental change.

Methods

Vulnerability assessment differs from traditional approaches to impact assessment in a number of ways. In essence, impact assessment selects a particular environmental stress of concern (e.g., climate change, a large dam construction, a new fishing technology applied) and seeks to identify its most important consequences for a variety of social or ecosystem properties. Vulnerability assessment, in contrast, selects a particular group or unit of concern (e.g., coastal communities, landless farmers, boreal forest ecosystems) and seeks to determine the risk of specific adverse outcomes for that unit in the face of a variety of stresses, and identifies a range of factors that may reduce response capacity and adaptation to stressors (Clark et al., 2000).

The following are common elements of vulnerability assessments. These elements are conceptual in nature and not intended to serve as a detailed methodology.

Analysis of coastal areas vulnerability

The objectives of analyzing coastal vulnerability are to identify the driving factors of coastal vulnerability, and to build up a base for an assessment. The analysis steps are 1) description of the vulnerability types; 2) tracing the ‘causal loop’ of vulnerability and 3) analysis of the behavior of the vulnerability.

Construction of an indicator system for vulnerability assessment

Vulnerability is defined as multilayered and multidimensional social space defined by the political, economical, and institutional capabilities of people in specific places at specific times (Watts and Bohle, 1993). Therefore, coastal vulnerability should be considered as a whole, and assessed using an integrated approach. Some principles for the construction of an indicator system are 1) fewer (indicators) are better, 2) qualitative and quantitative indicators should be combined, 3) trends and movements must be captured, 4) special indicators must be selected to represent the characteristics of the specific coastal area, 5) note of results, lessons and experiences already acquired should be taken, and 6) community participation provides special indicators to address local vulnerability characteristics.

Determination of the indicator standards

Determination of indicator standards is needed when evaluating vulnerability. However, there is lack of uniform standards; even reasonably mature standards are absent. Indeed, the whole process of selecting and weighting indicators has received little attention (SEI, 2001).

Principles for setting standards include 1) use of existing international or national standards for the indicators; 2) considering the precautionary principle, that is, high standard values should be accepted; 3) use of the current indicator values of a highly-developed domestic city as references.

Evaluation of current status of coastal vulnerability

We choose the integrated method to assess coastal vulnerability: the integrated assessment index I is the coastal vulnerability index. The calculated formula is:

formula

where Iij = value of vulnerability index; Xij = the estimated value of indicator j at subsystem i; m = the number of total indicators; i, j respectively express the subsystem of indicator and indicator item. Every indicator was given the same weight as each was considered an equally important aspect of coastal vulnerability. We set 1 ≥ Iij ≥ 0, and XSj is the standards value of each indicator. The estimation method of each quantitative indicator is given as follows:

  • 1.

    For the indicator which is the smaller value, the more vulnerable:

    • a.

      If security value was set as standard value: when XjXSj, then Ij = 0; when Xj < XSj, Ij = (1 − Xj/XSj) × 100%

    • b.

      If insecurity value was set as standard value: when XjXSj, Ij = 1; when XjXSj, Ij = XSj/ Xj × 100%

  • 2.

    For the indicator which is the bigger value, the more vulnerable

    • a.

      If security value was set as standard value: when XjXSj, Ij = 0; when Xj > XSj, Ij = (1−XSj/Xj) × 100%.

    • b.

      If insecurity value was set as standard value: when XjXSj, Ij = 1; when Xj < XSj, Ij = Xj/XSj × 100%.

To determine categories of vulnerability, ‘uneven intervals between vulnerability degrees’ was adopted as the method of classification (See Table 1). The grades of vulnerability and cut-off points for each of the values were determined according to the recognizing custom for grading. As for qualitative indicators, based on their status and vulnerability degree, the median value of the index scale was used as the estimated value. The larger the index Iij, the more vulnerable the coastal area.

Analysis of current risk and development of a prioritized plan for risk reduction

After determining the current level of vulnerability, information gathered on threat, critical assets, human activities and consequences should be analyzed for coastal risk. The coastal managers should then determine whether the current ecological security state is acceptable or risk reduction measures should be pursued. Recommended actions should measurably reduce risks by reducing vulnerabilities and/or consequences through improved deterrence, delay, detection and/or response capabilities, or by improving operational policies or procedures.

Case study: vulnerability assessment of Xiamen coastal area and ecological security management

Brief introduction of Xiamen

Located at the southeastern part of Fujian Province, west coast of Taiwan Strait, Xiamen covers a land area of 1,565 km2, and a sea area of 340 km2 with a coastline of 234 km. In the 1980s, the State Council of the People's Republic of China declared Xiamen as a special economic zone. Since then, industrialization and urbanization accelerated and population sharply increased. The coastal ecological environment endured great pressures from land-based activities. The uses of coastal and marine resources became more diversified and intense.

Vulnerability assessment of Xiamen coastal area

Xiamen coastal vulnerability is caused by human activities and natural changes; however, the land-based activities act as the main driving force. Therefore, the analysis mainly considers the human activities of population growth, industrial development, coastal engineering construction, shipping activities expanding, fisheries, mariculture, recreation and tourism.

Xiamen coastal vulnerability can be generalized from the dimensions of environment, economy, society and institution. Environmental vulnerability could be identified as marine water quality, land-based pollution source control, fisheries, biodiversity, sea-level rise, natural resources utilities, tourism, land use change, and so on. Economic vulnerability could be measured in economic benefit, economic tempo, economic structure and trade. The social dimension of vulnerability lies in employment, health, population and equity. Institutional vulnerability could be reflected from integrated decision-making, public awareness and information, law and administration, public participation and culture.

We constructed the indicator system using four dimensions, environment, economy, society and institution (see Table 2) with four indicators in each dimension. Of the sixteen indicators, ten are quantitative and six are qualitative.

There are four approaches to acquire the value of indicators, literature analysis, specialty analysis, questionnaire investigation and expert consultation. For the quantitative indicators, the approach of literature analysis was employed. For the indicator of land ecological environmental quality, we used the approach of specialty analysis by landscape ecological assessment. The indicator of government incorruptibility was investigated by public questionnaire. Expert consultations were used to investigate the indicators of the efficiency of administration measures and cultural details. Moreover, combining literature analysis and experts' consultations, the rationality of industrial structure was analyzed. The effect of public participation was addressed by integrating the questionnaire investigation and expert consultations.

The estimated value of each quantitative indicator was calculated by the method described above. For qualitative indicators, the estimated value was given directly according to their vulnerability degree. The integrated index of vulnerability was calculated by equation (11). The Xiamen coastal vulnerability for the year of 2002 was evaluated (Table 2).

We found that Xiamen is close to ‘bad’ vulnerability status with a vulnerability index of 0.3826. Some high vulnerability indicators are marine water quality, water resources, population, unemployment, income ratio, government incorruptibility and public participation.

An implemented plan of action is needed to reduce the vulnerability of Xiamen. Specific recommendations are to 1) develop a city ecological security management plan; 2) adjust the direction of industrial development and industrial structure, reduce the resources consuming of GDP per capita; 3) regulate the space pattern of industry; 4) accelerate the construction of less-developed areas, promote and coordinate the even development of urban and rural areas; 5) advance the construction of political civilization, administrate legally and strengthen public participation; and 6) control the population growth; reduce the pressure on resources and environment.

Discussion and Conclusion

Vulnerability assessment helps social and ecological systems evaluate susceptibility to potential threats and identify corrective actions that can reduce or mitigate the risk of serious consequences from adversarial actions. Here we apply an assessment to coastal ecological security management.

Numerous conceptual frameworks have been proposed for examining the causal structure of the vulnerability of people and places to environmental and social forces (e.g., Adger et al., 2001; Kasperson et al., 2003; Turner et al., 2003). These various frameworks help to characterize the multiple dimensions of vulnerability; however, they are often difficult to apply to policy analysis and decision making because they provide limited assistance for identifying relative vulnerability in specific locations to prioritize actions. The proposed methodological framework for evaluating vulnerability helps to address two challenges in ecological security management, 1) identifying relative vulnerability in order to prioritize actions and 2) assessing the vulnerability implications of management and policy decisions.

Blaikie et al. (1994) presented a ‘pressure and release’ (PAR) framework vulnerability as a system's ability to respond and recover from stresses, a system's sensitivity and adaptive capacity. However, the relationship between threats from environmental changes and the impacts or responses is not a simple cause-effect or linear relation, but a non-linear and resonance relation. Therefore, the coastal vulnerability should be recognized as a whole, that is, integrated assessment is needed. Environment, economy, society and institution are four dimensions for selecting indicators. Both common and unique indicators should be considered. For example, GDP per capita is a worldwide indicator for measuring economic potency; thus, the indicator of proportion of total imports and exports in GDP was selected, to address Xiamen's particularity as a special economic zone.

The methodology framework of vulnerability assessment presented here is not intended to provide an explanation of vulnerability, but is merely a tool to systematically examine a system's susceptibility to damage. The methods help identify relative vulnerability under a given set of conditions and identify proximate factors that are contributing to vulnerability. Managing vulnerability effectively in a dynamic and unpredictable world will require more than simple analytical tools. However, analytical methods for systematically assessing vulnerability, such as the one proposed here, may be critical for defining current and future management needs and policy decisions.

Acknowledgements

We thank the study group of Xiamen Eco-city conceptual planning of Environmental Science Research Center, Xiamen University. They helped undertake the investigation and analysis. We are grateful to the financial support from Natural Science Foundation of Fujian Province, China (NO.D044005) and Xiamen Environmental Protection Bureau.

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