A new resource for USACE: How to identify and engage socially vulnerable populations

U.S. Army Engineer Institute for Water Resources
Published July 8, 2016

SAVANNAH, Ga. – Deliberately focusing on people from lower socio-economic backgrounds clustered near civil works projects eases the job of gaining public approval, according to Corps experts’ recent study.

An emphasis on social vulnerability encourages Corps personnel to consider the “people” part of civil works planning and the social effects that can be influenced by the agency’s studies, projects, and regulatory decisions, said Susan Durden, a senior economist at the U.S. Army Engineer Institute for Water Resources (IWR).

One of the tools newly available for USACE to help with the identification of vulnerable populations is the Social Vulnerability Index. SOVI is a comparative metric that provides a snapshot of an area’s relative social vulnerability to hazard exposure and can be used for any hazard. The SOVI tool has two components: a data development tool and data analysis tool.

Social effects, in a water resources context, refer to how the components of life that influence personal and group definitions of satisfaction, well-being and happiness, are affected by some water resources conditions or proposed interventions, said Martin Harm, a pilot user of SOVI and regional economist in the Savannah District Planning Division.

Social vulnerability is one of those key social effects, he said.

SOVI addresses socio-economic impacts of flooding and other environmental hazards that often fall disproportionately on the most socially vulnerable people within communities. Vulnerable populations, which include those who lack access to education, adequate housing, economic resources, health care, and social networks, have the fewest resources to prepare for a flood and often live in the highest-risk locations, Durden said.


 Social Vulnerability Index showing sources of vulnerability by census track


Furthermore, Durden, in partnership with the USACE’s Collaboration and Public Participation Center of Expertise, IWR and economists at other USACE districts, have developed a primer entitled “Identification and Engagement of Socially Vulnerable Populations,” which considers vulnerable populations in evaluating potential projects, studies, or regulatory decisions.

The primer is intended to help Corps personnel and its partners understand the importance of identifying and engaging people who are more vulnerable to floods and other environmental hazards. The primer provides concrete strategies, tools, and examples of how to identify and work with vulnerable populations. It also illustrates how including them in decision making processes can have positive impacts on the formulation of water resource management alternatives and water resource decisions, Durden and Harm said.

In June, the pair attended the 15th Plinius Conference on Mediterranean Risk held in Taormina, Italy, to present their findings to about 80 scientists and natural disaster experts from more than three dozen international government, academic and private agencies.

“I have worked with a number of other conferences to expand their focus and am experienced in communicating economic and social science concepts to other disciplines,” Durden said. “Working as an economist and social scientist makes you practiced in straddling both worlds.”

Researchers anticipate that the primer will be useful to all USACE programs and can also serve other government agencies. In addition to providing general guidance, it offers special considerations for addressing social vulnerability in the Dam and Levee Safety Programs. SOVI can be installed on network computers and users can learn to use the tool by following the accompanying user manual. The associated SOVI analysis is done by uploading the data to Corps map and performing the analysis on the Corps map platform. The user can then see all SOVI analyses that have been done.

To learn more about the primer and the interactive SOVI tool, or to receive a copy of the primer, contact Seth Cohen seth.b.cohen@usace.army.mil (primer) or Susan Durden susan.e.durden@usace.army.mil (SOVI).

Corporate Communications Specialist Chelsea Smith contributed to this report