Place Matters When Improving Resilience to Flooding

Research by a team of geographers at the University of Exeter, published this summer and launched at the RGS-IBG, shows that understanding the significance of place to communities and individuals is important when considering how to adapt to the risks of flooding and build resilience to future flood events. The attachment felt by people to places can lead to a desire to maintain particular forms of water and landscape, retaining traditional methods of flood management that may conflict with the need to adapt both materially and socially to the increased risk of flooding. Taking greater account of the distinctiveness of places, the beliefs of communities and their attachments to their local environment, should, say the researchers, be part of a new, flexible, approach to assessing options for flood-risk management.

This is one of the conclusions from the report of the Winter Floods Project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to examine how the perceptions of problems and solutions evolve in the year immediately after a major flooding event (in Winter 2013/14). The project took the Somerset Levels and Moors as an area of special research interest, with researchers undertaking repeated interviews with individuals both in this location and in Boston, Lincolnshire. This was supplemented by a survey of 1,000 representative members of the public in these two flood-affected regions, plus interviews with local and national stakeholders (including policy-makers).

The research team, led by Dr Catherine Butler, Advanced Research Fellow in the Department of Geography, suggest that there is a need for decision-making post-floods to be more strategic in order to reduce disputes between the public and stakeholders, leading to more constructive dialogue. The researchers found the quality of political debate in the aftermath of floods, for instance, to be poor. Flood events were seen as opportunities for political point-scoring, to entrench existing party-political positions. Meanwhile, the geographers found that the ‘differential forms of social and economic capital’ in different places, held by different communities and local authorities/ agencies, can affect their ability to attract national resources, with their eventual distribution not then reflective of need; a sense then that perhaps those that ‘shout the loudest’ get the greatest share of resources.

Fundamentally, the researchers found, members of the public and policy-makers/ institutions perceive the causes of flooding, and therefore the responsibilities to deal with it, very differently. For example, both the public and stakeholders agreed that high levels of rainfall contributed to the winter flooding in 2013/14 but the public were more likely to attribute flooding to the social actions of institutions and individuals. These includes river and land maintenance, inappropriate development, decisions made during the flooding event itself and longer-term prioritisation of other issues.

The data reveal a mismatch in the expectations of members of the public regarding flood-risk management and the statutory requirements of Government bodies with responsibilities for this. This then effects how constructively communities and agencies are able to work together in the future to combat flood risk. There is therefore a need for greater communication, being clear about the roles of agencies and those of communities themselves. To build trust there must likewise be greater discussion between agencies and communities about viable low-cost alternatives for flood management. Tendencies for a ‘blame culture’ can be exacerbated in those communities at high risk of flooding that do not qualify for flood defence funding under current economic assessments.

The research shows that communities can and do take action themselves to respond to flooding but that they could be better supported by governing institutions to do so, for example through greater sensitivity to the importance of community cohesion. Such cohesion is shown by the researchers to be vitally important in communities’ responses to flooding. The formal appointment of support workers and volunteers to help to build social networks, signpost people to official institutions and provide individual help is very important. Likewise, people feeling that they are able to change things and to engage with decision-makers, is significant in improving people’s well-being after flooding occurs.

Flooding will be considered by the RGS-IBG at two 21st Century Challenges events: ‘Achieving sustainable flood risk management in the UK’ on 8th November, in London and ‘Flooding: National problem, local solutions?’ on the 11th March , in Cumbria. Building resilient communities will be a central theme of both events. 

Image: Floods On the Levels – 3. Mark Robinson, Flickr.

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