Participatory tools for assessing vulnerability

Ram Chandra Khanal

In Nepal, communities are affected by frequent flash floods, induced by changing climatic conditions. Assessing vulnerability of these communities to flash floods through people’s participation, helped communities better understand the consequences of climate change. Local communities took lead in developing adaptation strategies and mechanisms to mitigate some of the adverse impacts of floods.

 Adverse impacts of climate change is becoming an important challenge for poverty reduction and maintaining ecosystems health, in the developing countries. Communities are becoming more vulnerable and their livelihoods are at threat. Climate change and climate variability is very complex, uncertain and a dynamic process. Understanding and assessing the extent, rate and direction of vulnerability is important for responding climate change induced adverse impacts. In this context, it is important to explore the effective and simple methods and tools to assess climate change induced vulnerability at the community level. There is growing recognition that participatory tools traditionally being used by communities can be very useful and an effective method to assess the vulnerability.

A study was carried out in Jugedi village of Nepal, to explore the strengths and effectiveness of selected participatory tools for vulnerability assessment in climate change and development projects. This village is 130 km from Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. The altitude of this village ranges from 400 to 800 meters above sea level. The village comprises of mixed ethnicity, culture and tradition. Women literacy rate is low (10%) compared to men (45%). The main occupation is agriculture, predominantly at a subsistence level. Farmers cultivate maize, paddy and millet as the main crops along with vegetables. Although the primary occupation of the community is farming, the village was found food ‘insecure’. Only about 50% farmers had food sufficiency for 6 months. There were about 25 landless families. Besides crop production, daily labor within the village, seasonal migration for short term employment and marketing vegetables were the other important livelihood options for the communities.


The study was carried out through consultative processes of community groups and natural resource management experts. Experts’ input was solicited in designing the study framework in the beginning and then several field level discussions were carried out with a community group by using different participatory tools such as matrix ranking, seasonal calendar, historical trend and social and resource map.

To assess and map out vulnerability at local level, some specific questions were asked to the community like a) which is the climate risk factor for the communities? b) During which period are the communities at risk? c) Which is the risk-prone area? d) who are the most affected?


‘Ranking matrix’ was used to answer the first question on ‘which is the climate risk factor for the communities?’ After listing out major problems and ranking them in terms of their severity, community members finally came up with one major problem i.e., flash flood during late monsoon time. Based on the group discussions and exercises the problem of monsoon floods in the month of August and September was prioritized as a biggest problem. Once they identify the main problem, the community group members identified and prioritized the impacts from flash floods and analysed the risks (fig 1 and 2). They included agricultural land cutting, landslides, destruction of irrigation canals, damage to the drinking water supply system, loss of house and other physical infrastructures i.e. small bridges, temples. Agricultural land cutting was identified as the most severe impact.

Seasonal calendar was used to answer the question on ‘during which period are the communities at risk?’. The community group was asked to identify the different parameters of risks from floods and to provide the most risky time during floods, month wise. The group easily identified the parameter and specific time of high possibility of flood occurrence. In this case, group identified late August and early September as the most risky period (fig 2).

A social and resource map is a participatory visual diagram which shows location of different kinds of natural resources and other features (infrastructure and social facilities) in the village. Community members were asked to prepare social and resource map in the beginning and then requested them to identify the most risky area with justifications. Once all community members agreed, the places were clearly marked in the map by the community group themselves. ‘Social and resource map’ was used to identify the most risky place in the community during flash floods. Based on all these exercises, community members identified and mapped out the most vulnerable areas in their community. There were also able to visualize the direction and extent of vulnerability over the last 3-4 decades from their own experience.

Focus Group Discussion (FGD) method was used to identify ‘who are the most affected by the floods’? The discussion showed that ‘women’, ‘poor’ ‘elders’ and ‘children’ were more prone to flash floods. The community discussion revealed that most of the landless or very small landholders settling near the river are the most vulnerable community during the monsoon floods.

Effectiveness and challenges of using participatory tools

Segregating impact of climate change and assessing vulnerability at the community level is a complex task. However, participatory tools were found to be very effective in encapsulating local issues, values and knowledge that were available at the community level. It was also proven to be effective to identify the extent of vulnerability, vulnerable time and the groups who are not vulnerable  as well as portraying the most vulnerable area in a visual diagram. Besides these, participatory tools were very efficient to capture qualitative attributes. They need less time and cost and have proven to be very good learning tools for the community themselves.

This exercise assisted the community members to understand about the consequences of climate change and its relation with seasonal floods. The exercise was useful to develop some community based adaptation strategies and mechanisms (changing irrigation canal route, switching crop varieties and sowing time, modifying cropping patterns etc) helped in enhancing the capacity of local communities in mitigating some of the adverse impacts of floods. Communities started working in the community based spur construction programmes to minimize flood impacts. They also integrated these climate change and vulnerability concerns in the existing group work and reached out service providers (both NGOs and government organizations) for seeking additional support from them.


This brief article is based on the study ‘Vulnerability Assessment in Nepal: Lessons Learnt from Participatory Vulnerability Assessments’. Some of the findings of this study were presented in an international workshop on evaluating climate change and development in Alexandria, Egypt. I would like to extend my sincere thanks to all the community members of Kabilas village and Basanta Ranabhat of Ecological Services Centre for their information, time and logistic support without which the study would not have been possible.

Ram Chandra Khanal

Senior Programme Officer, International Union for Conservation of Nature in Nepal,

Fig 1: Ranking Matrix

Risk Parameters Agriculture land cutting Land slides Loss of house Irrigation canal damage Drinking water supply system damage
Scale/Extent/Severity XXXXX XXX XXX XXXX XXX
Probability/ Frequency of occurrence XXXXX XXX XX XXX XX
No. of persons affected XXX XX XX XXX XX
Slope/Land cover XXX XXXX XX XXX X
Lack of awareness and early warning systems X X X X X
Severity of risk I (21) II (18) IV (13) III (17) V (11)

X – Indicates severity of problem



Apr-May May-Jun June-July July-Aug Aug-Sep Sep-Oct Oct-Nov Nov-Dec Dec-Jan Jan-Feb Feb-Mar Mar-Apr
Particulars Baisakhi Jyestha Aashad Shraban Bhadra Aaswin Karthik Mansir Poush Magh Falgun Chaitra
Rainy Season
Flood Period
Land cutting
Food Deficit
High monetary Requirement
Water borne diseases
Most vulnerable months  






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