From ‘flood defence’ to ‘flood risk management’ …. What mixes of disciplines creatively co-working might contribute new insights to this ‘wicked problem’ and community resilience building?

By Lindsey McEwen (University of the West of England, Bristol)

The floods of winter 2013-14 brought the tensions and schisms in UK flood management into strong focus. They also highlighted how flooding is associated with many discourses in the interactions among scientists, the public, politicians and the media – including those of victimhood and blame so vehemently propagated in the TV coverage.

  • So what are the implications of this paradigm shift (of the mid 1990s) to ‘management of flood risk’ (FRM) for science research agendas, and for the capacity building needs of the different stakeholders in FRM who need to be effectively engaged for action?
  • Have researchers and funding bodies, as well as communities themselves, now caught up with the personal and organisational implications of this shift for flood knowledge needs?

While the paradigm of ‘flood defence’ has historically been underpinned by engineering and modelling, the notion of distributed flood management (devolved responsibility), and ‘dealing with residual risk’ means an increased and strong emphasis on the human – that we all need to take some responsibility for our own safety.

While different flood types (and their interaction) can be modelled and forecast with increasing accuracy, the nature of the response of those on the ground – to both these predictions and their uncertainty – can be critical in terms of mitigating against flood losses. Indeed anecdotal evidence supports that many people need to be flooded three times before they take action against future losses.

Alternative approaches to flood risk like natural flood management (NFM), sustainable urban drainage, flood warning schemes, property-level resistance/ resilience measures, and insurance (FloodRE), that can be integrated in different ways, all require understanding of stakeholder behaviour and of how to engage different stakeholders – with science and in learning for resilience. Such learning can be formal, social, experiential… Public and organisational engagement with ‘expert’ science involves dealing with ‘troublesome concepts’ – like risk, probabilities and uncertainty – that present real and continued challenges for science communication, and knowledge brokering and translation. All these areas are fertile territory for interdisciplinary research contributions involving the social sciences.

The social science contribution to hazard management research is not new

An initial focus was on understanding the individual as decision-maker; the pioneering work of the US ‘Chicago school’ of hazard geographers in the 1960s plays testament to this. It is well established that individuals at risk do not act rationally, and that repeated experience of flooding does not necessarily lead to (appropriate) action. However, in responding to the research needs of the paradigm shift to FRM, non-contiguous interdisciplinary working between natural/ physical and social sciences, and also the humanities and arts, has the potential to bring new insights to the challenge of effective FRM in context of changing risk. Now the research focus is not simply on the individual as decision-maker; social science research has taken a ‘community’ turn.

The term ‘community’ is itself contested (including geographical, interest, local, global communities), and is frequently qualified as focusing on ‘vulnerable’ or ‘hard-to-reach’ groups (a term to avoided for many reasons). A whole series of questions ensue. Research is focusing on what/who are flood risk ‘communities’ (emphasising the plural), how do they function under different stresses and risks, what are their nodes and networks (‘communities’ rather than ‘community’?), what are their knowledges and capital, and how do they learn? How can communities become more resilient before, through and after floods? What does individual or community ‘learning for resilience’ look like?

It is increasingly recognised that generating expert scientific knowledge can only be part of the evidence base in FRM. Established flood risk communities can be the ‘eyes and ears on the ground’ as floods play out in the 1:1, so possessing lay/local/ indigenous knowledges that can be very different from, but arguably complementary to, those of the scientific modeller. These different knowledges need to enter dialogue. Lay knowledge of flooding can also recognise the difference between living with ‘routine’ floods and real extremes. Such memories and knowledges can be archived and protected in traditional and increasingly new ways – from flood marking, photographs, documentary archives and social media (see ESRC Sustainable Flood Memories project).

Social sciences taking a ‘narrative turn’

While historically the social science disciplines that might have contributed to flood risk as a hazard may have been hazard geography and psychology, social science has also recently taken a ‘narrative turn’. Such approaches and methods involve creative non-contiguous interdisciplinary research – with social scientists working with environmental scientists, the humanities and arts – to develop new understandings of flooding and place and of power relations around water.

  • What is your sense of place (a ‘watery sense of place’) when you, your family through generations have lived in the same place prone to flooding?
  • How does this sense of place link to notions of local flood heritage and care for place?
  • What can be learnt from peoples’ resilience narratives from the past – from rural to urban and ‘urban established’ to ‘urban new’ or transient?
  • How have resilience stories been shared horizontally and vertically within and between communities – past, present and future?

Such resilience stories or narratives can be viewed through different resilience lenses – including ‘institutional’, ‘infrastructural’, ‘emotional’ or in terms of community capital. When such stories are shared – community to community or community to agency – they can be potentially transformative (see ESRC Flood Memories digital story archive).

Co-producing digital stories that reflect on flood resilience – working with lower Severn Communities (May 2014)

In such narrative settings, the voices exchanged are the experiences of ‘the flooded’ rather than the passive transfer of information outward from public bodies in fliers or on websites. Indeed more recently water narratives around people’s changing relationships with water are being explored from the perspective of ‘hydrocitizenship’ and water-community relations (see AHRC Towards Hydrocitizenship and accompanying blogs ; ).

Research needs to go beyond contiguous interdisciplinary approaches

So in concluding this post, research agendas which focus solely on the role of hard science and modelling can only be part of the solution. Arguably, in the public psyche this can also perpetuate a sense of dependence on the science of ‘the experts’, and on the environmental regulator as acting on that science. This can again be seen played out in the debates over engineering solutions and dredging in the Somerset levels. So research needs to go beyond contiguous interdisciplinary approaches where modellers only speak to different kinds of modellers.

Creative explorations in non-contiguous interdisciplinarity involving the social sciences and natural/physical sciences, and the arts and humanities can open new research vistas. Current examples include agent based modelling of interactions of agents as decision makers, whether as individuals or organisations, where modellers work with social scientists (see EPSRC SESAME project), and the evolving role of the arts in future scenario scoping, working with communities at risk, scientists and local agencies in FRM (see AHRC Multi-Story-Water report; websites for Eastville, Bristol and Shipley, Leeds), and in the interplay and negotiation between science, policy and public understanding.

For further reflections on the changing contributions of the social sciences, arts and humanities in flood risk management, please see my collaborative article with Owain Jones (cultural geographer) and Iain Robertson (historian) entitled A Glorious Time?” Some reflections on flooding in the Somerset Levels in The Geographical Journal (December 2014). My background is in geography, working at the interface between natural and social sciences.


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