Flood resilience requires more than concrete walls

Posted on 27 Jan 2022 in

When it comes to bolstering resilience in flood-prone communities, building public awareness is at least as important as flood defences, argues Sara Mehryar, reporting on recent research by the Grantham Research Institute in Eastern England.

Investing in public awareness, information and knowledge-sharing can play a significant role in preparing a community for current and future risks. These are the findings from new research based on interviews and mind mapping of local community stakeholders in the town of Lowestoft on the East Coast of England. However, the importance of these actions is often overlooked, with funding strategies prioritising physical flood barriers and infrastructure.

Enhancing flood resilience is about more than just protecting communities from flooding. It is also about reducing the risk of flooding occurring, being prepared for potential floods and being able to respond to and recover from floods as quickly as possible. Increasing flood resilience therefore means improving the social, human, natural and financial as well as physical capacities of communities.

However, for those charged with making decisions about flood resilience, there is often a tendency towards measures that seem to immediately and tangibly protect communities from flooding, such as building flood walls and barriers. While these have large-scale benefits, they are often not economically accessible, take a long time to materialise, and will never completely remove flood risk.

In some cases these measures can also create a false sense of security. Sea level rise and climate change-driven coastal erosion – and the resulting breaches of flood defences – mean that relying on higher flood walls alone will not see communities winning the war against water. Instead, we have to consider a variety of structural and non-structural measures to minimise flood risks as well as to prepare communities for the worst. And we need to increase their capacity to recover speedily afterwards.

Thinking imaginatively about the flooding challenge – lessons from Lowestoft

These issues tell us that we must think bigger and more imaginatively about how to tackle this challenge. Along with other colleagues at the Institute, I have been working with East Suffolk Council on how to boost the flood resilience of communities in Lowestoft, a flood-prone coastal town in England. We used a measurement tool developed by the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance to calibrate communities’ social, physical, financial, human and natural resilience against flood risk and to identify weak spots.

An interesting and impactful technique we used was to run ‘mind mapping exercises’ with local stakeholders in Lowestoft who are influencing or being influenced by flood risk management activities in the town. During a round of interviews we developed individual mind maps with each local stakeholder, identifying the most important actions that should be taken to improve flood resilience in Lowestoft and how these actions interrelate: for example, how improving local people’s financial capacities can impact a society’s natural capacities related to flood risk management. Combined mind maps of interviewees revealed that while large-scale flood protection measures are perceived as the most urgent action, enhancing human capabilities – such as raising awareness and sharing knowledge about the risks faced by people and property – can boost communities’ flood resilience more significantly in the long term.

This exercise helped identify key focus areas for information and knowledge-sharing: where people in communities have information and knowledge on the locations of flood zones; what actions they can take to make their home flood-resistant; what they should do to protect their businesses and belongings; and how to evacuate when a flood occurs so that they are able to significantly reduce their personal risk. Similarly, in terms of financial impacts, where people are forearmed with knowledge about insurance ahead of an event, and financial support after an event, they are more likely to be able to bounce back relatively quickly after a flood.

Putting risk on people’s radar

Raising awareness is not just about increasing knowledge but also about sharpening a community’s perception of risk. When flood frequency is low, the collective memory fades. This means people and businesses are less likely to take steps to protect themselves. But activities such as first-aid training for businesses, education in schools, and public engagement in flood risk management projects can helpfully heighten the perception of risks. Social media can be useful too, to share modelling for local flood zones. Where people have a good understanding of the risks, they are more likely to adapt their homes and businesses and to cooperate with councils on flood risk management projects.

Knowledge is power in flood-risk areas. As our climate changes, and as places in and around the UK, as in other countries, become at higher risk from flooding, it will be critical that people and communities know what flood risks they face, and how they need to respond.

This commentary is based on research findings from Mehryar S and Surminski S (2021) Investigating flood resilience perceptions and supporting collective decision-making through fuzzy cognitive mapping, Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy Working Paper 400/Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment Working Paper 373. An earlier version of the commentary was published by Business Green.