Natural disaster and social-ecological transitions

Wei Liu discusses his postdoctoral work which relates to the transitioning human-environment relationships in the community of the Wolong Nature Reserve, China, in particular the period after it was struck by the 7.9 Mw Wenchuan earthquake.

W. Liu

W. Liu


Transitions in complex social-ecological systems (SESs) are intermediate phases between two successive and more stable periods or states and involve various societal, ecological, and biophysical changes that are often non-linear and inter-related. Understanding transitions is challenging but important for guiding and shaping SESs toward achieving environmental sustainability and improving human well-being. Natural disasters, especially the low-probability, high-consequence ones, can significantly alter the transition trajectories of SESs and jeopardize their long-term sustainability and resilience. There are very few empirical studies on this important topic, mainly due to the lack of long-term pre-disaster information and data.


Taking advantage of a long-term research program on human-environment relationships in Wolong Nature Reserve, China, since the late 1990s, I studied how the local community's economic, energy, and land use/cover transitions were changed by a mega-disaster, the 7.9 Mw Wenchuan earthquake, which struck the area on 12 May 2008 and caused massive damages and mortality. Based on detailed household survey data over a nine-year period before, as well as one year after the earthquake and then several years after it, I developed a series of surrogates on livelihood assets (i.e., natural, human, social, physical, and financial capitals) at both household and community scales. I assessed household and community resilience/vulnerability and their dynamics and investigated these in relation to levels of various capital stocks and their changes over time.


At community level all capital stocks shrank substantially immediately after the earthquake (Figure 1). Recovery of the capital took place at varying paces. While human, financial, and physical capital generally increased during the reconstruction period, natural capital did not increase much, due to recurrent flash floods, debris flow, and landslides after the earthquake; social capital actually dwindled, mainly because of the increasing antagonism between the community and local government and within the community. Across the community, households had various recovery trajectories, which can be largely explained by the heterogeneity of livelihood assets before the earthquake.


Heterogeneity is key to understanding the impacts of disasters on social-ecological transitions at household, community, and even higher scales. This long-term and intensive research not only has direct implications for building disaster resilience and support as part of sustainability transitions in developing countries, but also increases our general understanding of the complexity of socio-ecological systems, such as their non-linearity and path-dependent characteristics.

Figure 1


Wei Liu is a Chinese citizen. He is conducting his postdoctoral research in the Risk, Policy, and Vulnerability (RPV) Program and receives funding from IIASA.

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Last edited: 15 April 2014


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