Flood risk management: how to engage with communities

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How do we encourage community members to be involved in flood risk management? Over the past two years at the Floodplain Management Australia (FMA) National Conferences I have provided an insight and guidance into best practices in community engagement that lead to at-risk communities participating in flood risk assessment and planning. Once established, these practices can lead to effective community engagement in the subsequent implementation, and monitoring and evaluation of flood risk management options.

Prior to planning and implementing community engagement activities, it is critical to understand why people will engage (or won’t engage) in flood risk management (or flood mitigation). This understanding provides some general approaches to the community engagement which is particularly challenging at the mitigation phase of the disaster management cycle.  To enable this, at the 2017 FMA Conference I presented a paper that explored the psychological and sociological enablers and barriers to flood mitigation.

This research found that an initial determinant of the willingness to engage in pre-planning for an emergency or disaster is risk awareness. If people do not envisage they are at risk in any way, they will be oblivious and not be involved. Studies across Europe and in Australia show that on average 20% of those living in flood-prone areas were unaware of their risk of flooding, including above-floor flooding.

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Approximately 18% of residents in a high risk flood area of Sydney, Australia were unaware that their house might flood

From these and other studies, risk awareness was found to be strongly correlated to previous flood experience (dependent on duration between floods and the mobility of the population). This means that it is important to advise all residences, businesses and other landuses (e.g. caravan parks) in the flood-prone area that they are at risk of flooding. This could be done via a letter, of if the flood study or plan is in a small area, by doorknocking. This process needs to be done regularly (e.g. annually) to cater for the transient population (e.g. renters).

Once people are aware of the flood risk, their perception of that risk is a major factor in their willingness to engage in local flood risk management activities. The conference paper described several psychological models including the Protective Action Decision Model that help explain the factors that determine people’s hazard risk perception and how this is transferred into action such as involvement in mitigation and preparedness. Again flood experience appears to be an important factor in people’s flood risk perception, plus the level of concern about the safety of themselves and others (e.g. family), and their property.

It should be noted that there may be a discrepancy between the floodplain manager’s and citizen’s perception of flood risk. Prior flood experience can also be a barrier as it can trap people into expecting the same again and thus perceiving the risk to be lower than possible (the so-called ‘prison of experience’). Another barrier can be the ‘levee syndrome’ where there is low risk perception in structurally protected areas e.g. behind levees, dams. To enable accurate perception of flood risk, people should have the opportunity to review flood risk maps of the local area and provide their personal experiences to help calibrate the maps. The communication should use non-technical language so that people can understand technical concepts such the ‘100-year flood’ and ‘Probable Maximum Flood’.

‘No Man is an Island’ – John Donne. People are social beings and live and network in communities, and therefore there are also broader social influences that explain their involvement (or lack of) in floodplain risk management. Social capital consists of those bonds created by belonging to a group or network that instils trust, solidarity, and cooperation among members. Social capital was found to be one of the main psychosocial determinants in the residents’ desire to carry out and be involved in pre-disaster risk minimisation activities. Other social factors that were highly influential in people’s involvement in flood mitigation planning included the media and political juntas and power factions.  Existing community engagement networks such as community groups, schools, business organisations, Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communities, religious groups and progress associations should therefore be used in engagement to lock into the community’s social capital.

At the 2018 FMA Conference, I then provided guidance and participants shared experiences in a whole day workshop related to the following steps in developing an effective local community engagement plan for flood risk management:

  • Identifying the local community e.g. Community as a locality – At-risk population (residents, businesses, vulnerable people etc.) – Others indirectly impacted. Community as a shared sense of belonging. Community as a social network.
  • How to understand the local community e.g. through community profiling, social network analysis.
  • What is the community engagement trying to achieve? e.g. shared responsibility, equality in decision-making, use of local knowledge, accurate flood mapping, identification of flood mitigation options, preparation of a local floodplain risk management plan.
  • What are appropriate engagement methods? The workshop practised six methods: participatory mapping (see example at the start of this blog post), oral histories, community surveys, ‘Listening Posts’ (e.g. drop-in sessions in shopping centres), crowdsourcing and world cafes. Several other methods were identified and guidance was provided as to how to choose the most appropriate for the community and flood scenarios. Participants were shown the IAP2 Spectrum to help them choose appropriate community engagement methods.
  • How to communicate flood risk concepts and language in a non-technical way. The workshop participants practised ways to verbally and non-verbally communicate technical flood content to the public.
  • How to prepare a community engagement plan. Workshop participants were provided with a plan template and prepared a community engagement plan based on a case study.

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Community engagement in the floodplain management process workshop at the 2018 FMA Conference 

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