Natural Hazards

, Volume 55, Issue 3, pp 749–763 | Cite as

Understanding multiple thresholds of coupled social–ecological systems exposed to natural hazards as external shocks

  • Fabrice G. Renaud
  • Jörn Birkmann
  • Marion Damm
  • Gilberto C. Gallopín
Original Paper


Societies and ecosystems worldwide are increasingly subjected to hazards of natural and anthropogenic origins. Increasing the resilience and reducing the vulnerability of social–ecological systems (SES) so that they can withstand these shocks is crucial. External shocks (e.g. cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods) can induce an SES to move from one regime to another (or one stability domain to another), the latter typically being unfavourable. This can be through the disruption of ecosystems and the services they provide to society and/or through disruption of the social and economic structure and networks of the SES. Important characteristics of SES are the thresholds (boundaries) separating stability domains, but these are very difficult to evaluate because of the complex nature of SES. We use the example of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami impact on groundwater resources and the coastal communities relying on them in Sri Lanka, to illustrate that a practical approach for SES threshold characterisation could be through description of the dependency of social groups with respect to essential ecosystem services and through an understanding of the state of the ecosystems providing these services. However, this is not sufficient and changes of adaptive capacities of different social groups, access to the environmental services and the interventions undertaken by different actors also need to be considered. Furthermore, the question of when (time and phase) and why (stimuli) SES might shift into another state should be reviewed more critically. The implication is that multiple thresholds within the sub-components of the SES have to be assessed.


Social–ecological systems Resilience Vulnerability Threshold 



This work was undertaken thanks to core funding to UNU-EHS from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the Ministry of Science, Innovation, Research and Technology of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia. We are also grateful for the constructive comments of Matthias Garschagen and two anonymous reviewers on previous versions of the paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Fabrice G. Renaud
    • 1
  • Jörn Birkmann
    • 1
  • Marion Damm
    • 1
  • Gilberto C. Gallopín
    • 2
  1. 1.Institute for Environment and Human SecurityUnited Nations UniversityBonnGermany
  2. 2.Tte.Gral.J.D. Perón 1890Buenos AiresArgentina

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