Inclusive Vulnerability Mapping – Discontents and Happy Amateurs Welcome


“Maps are always manifestations of power”, emphasizes researcher Carsten Butch from the University of Cologne. In doing so, he unknowingly summarized a Friday-morning session on constructing spatial knowledge of water-related vulnerabilities

Maps are never objective; they have never been and will likely never become. Subjective choices are always part of their making and the end results always have differentiated consequences for different stakeholders. Contested parameter definition in a GIS environment, as well as selective use of data or data lacking, are examples as to why also modern maps should never be taken at face value, or at least not remain unchallenged. As Professor Isa Baud of the University of Amsterdam posited: “A certain deconstruction of maps is always a wise idea”.

The use of GIS has become a cornerstone of vulnerability assessment and adaptation planning, which is more than justified by its advantage. But, speculated the panel, perhaps the notion of GIS-produced maps (and more traditional visual overlay mapping) as also being “only” temporary constructions that need to be iteratively changed – ideally together with all relevant stakeholders – has until now not been adequately understood and/or implemented by the adaptation community.

Especially since this shortcoming may hamper implementation of for example crucial set-back lines for beachgront retreat etc., changing practices are needed. I personally therefore much enjoyed the case studies presented – from Peru, Brazil, India, Indonesia and Uganda – because of what they all had in common: innovative use of participatory mapping and recipes for minimizing conflicts over the final map/plan by reflecting on and integrating various relationships and power settings from the very outset.

Discussion on three interrelated problems – imperatives, according to me – were especially informative: the need to understand through inclusive mapping the distribution among citizens of the costs/benefits that will result from the adaptation plan; the need to differentiate between immediate causes and ultimate causes, by not only mapping structures but also people, with regards to the fact that complex systems always are characterized by unforeseeable feedback mechanisms (“the Butterfly Effect”); and the need to harness the mountain of tacit knowledge and information that resides in “normal” citizens, including those earning their livings in the informal sector, which currently remains unused and thus useless.

Drawing from the panel’s passionate encouragement and from personal past frustrations, I wholeheartedly stand behind the conclusion that a prioritized course of action in terms of adaptation mapping should be to make it reflexibe, collaborative and iterative, across the board.

Climate change makes water more precious – and more deadly. Our mapping of water issues must rise to the challenge. But technical mapping can only get us so far; more participatory approaches are required. Human history is full of maps whose fatal consequences attest to this. Vulnerability assessment are of course less political than, say, disseminating contested maps of political borders, and may look utterly innocent in comparison, but appearances are often deceiving – further socioeconomic and health inequalities can arise or be aggravated if we are not careful.

Tim Isaksson
Student, Lund University

Tim Isaksson