Flood risk management: how to engage with communities


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.


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

Is anyone out there? The social media for emergency management audience


Social media have been used in emergency management for over ten years, and their use by emergency agencies before, during and after disasters has now become common practice. An understanding of how social media can be used for emergency management is evolving, with some scholars also identifying ways they can be used to build disaster resilience.

Critical to an understanding of how social media can be best used for emergency management is an appreciation of the characteristics of the social media audience. The recently released ‘Digital in 2018’ report provides an insight into the potential global social media audience for emergency management.

The report estimates that 42% (3.2 billion) of the global population are active social media users. There was a 13% annual growth in global active social media users recorded in 2017.

It is important for emergency managers to understand the reach of social media in their country. Although the global social media audience is rapidly expanding, there is great spatial variation of social media use across the world with Northern America (70% of the total population), Northern Europe (66%), Eastern Asia (64%) and South America (63%) having the highest rates, and Middle Africa (6%) and Eastern Africa (7%) the lowest rates. Countries with the highest rates of social media use include the U.A.E (99%), South Korea (84%) and Singapore (83%), whilst the lowest rates are found in North Korea, Turkmenistan, Eritrea and South Sudan (all 1% or less).

Which social media should emergency agencies be using? Facebook is by far the most popular social media platform across the world, with a reported user population greater than the world’s most populous country, China. In 2018, approximately two-thirds (2.2 billion) of the social media users accessed Facebook, whilst about 15% (330 million) used Twitter. YouTube (1.5 billion users) was the second most popular social media platform, followed by Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

Several countries have their own social media platforms (in some cases, because global platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are banned or heavily censored). For example, in China WeChat (980 million users) and QQ (843 million users) dominate social media use.

There appears to be a large degree of reciprocity between the major social media platforms, although not necessarily by Facebook users. Pew Research Center in a survey of US online adults found that 56% use more than one of the five social media platforms that were measured in the survey.

The implications of this for emergency managers and those wishing to use social media for emergencies is that more than one social media platform should be used (although one should be Facebook).

An important factor in the recent increase in the use of social media, particularly in emerging and developing countries, is the upsurge in smartphone ownership. According to the Digital in 2018 report, 39% of the global population access social media via their mobile (cell) phone. Eastern Asia (64%) and Northern America (61%) are the regions with the highest rates of mobile social media use.

The preferred use of smartphones means that many social media users can access communications from emergency agencies, even if electricity is not available (due to power disruption).

It also means that social media users can provide updates and gain support as an emergency or disaster unfolds, including the provision to others of multi-media information available on the smartphone e.g. videos, photographs.

Who is using social media, potentially for emergencies? There is a higher percentage of males (56%) using Facebook, compared with females (44%). This trend is reversed with Instagram with female use (51%) outnumbering male use (49%).

Social media use in emergency management may be more effective in countries with younger demographics. Younger people (18-29 years) more commonly use Facebook and Instagram significantly more than those in other age brackets and particularly those 65 years and over.

Other aspects of the social media audience that should be noted by emergency agencies are language and time spent using social media. The main language spoken on Facebook is English (51%), followed by Spanish (14%). Social media users from some countries spend large amounts of time on social media. For example, Filipinos spend on average close to four hours per day on social media, whilst Japanese users spend less than one hour.

Even within countries there can be greatly varying social media usage rates across communities. This can be attributed to internet access issues, as well as age, socio-economic, cultural and educational factors. It is important that agencies and communities understand these usage rates prior to the development of disaster ECE and early warning activities. This can be done via social research to ascertain social media usage rates in specific communities and the willingness to use social media for emergencies. For example, this author working in Australia which has a high rate of social media use, found through social research that in a flood-prone regional town relatively close to Sydney social media were one of the least popular ways for residents to learn more about flooding, supported by only 17% of survey respondents.

Disaster Education, Communication and Engagement (ECE) – an introduction



Like the Three Musketeers (“All for one and one for All”), disaster ‘Education’, ‘Communication’ and ‘Engagement’ (ECE) work best as one. Although this may appear obvious to many in disaster management, in some emergency agencies around the world the three can be in different divisions of the organisation, and not necessarily working as one in a seamless fashion for public safety.

Let us explore the personalities of the ECE trio, and then look at why they work best as one.

Disaster education

Education is the process of facilitating learning. There are only a handful of research books on disaster education, although it is mainstream in many emergency agencies and humanitarian organisations. In one of these books, Professor John Preston states “there is surprisingly little writing in the field of disaster education/pedagogy”. He feels this is largely due to disaster education being a “new area of enquiry in the field of education”. Preston believes that disaster education, rather than only giving instruction, “engages individuals in learning about emergency situations whether in preparation, response or recovery from a disaster”.

In another book, the editors – Shaw, Shiwaku and Takeuchi – also acknowledge that “disaster education is an evolving subject. New ideas, methods, and tools will be generated over time”. The book divides disaster education into three modes:

  1. Formal education – education provided in the system of schools, colleges, universities and other formal educational institutions. For example, sections of a curriculum that includes content on hazards, preparedness and safety.
  2. Non-formal education – organised and sustained educational activities that are not part of the formal curricula of the education institutions, and can cater to persons of all ages. For example, presentations by emergency agencies to the public or schools (extra-curricular).
  3. Informal education – from daily activities related to work, family life or leisure, where the learning is not structured, e.g. learning about emergencies from the media including social media.

The above classification helps dispel the view held by some that disaster education is solely learning in formal settings e.g. school education.

Disaster communication

Communication is the act of transferring information from one place to another. It can denote two different processes:

  1. the transmission of information (a one-way process)
  2. sharing information (a common or mutual process).

Both processes are included in current emergency communication strategies.

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In disaster management, the transmission model (one-way process) is primarily used where there is information disseminated by emergency agencies for alerts and warnings. In contrast, the idea of sharing information implies a common or mutual process. The use of social media as an emergency communication tool inherently involves two-way information sharing.

Disaster communication has developed in two parts in relation to the ‘disaster cycle’:

  1. Risk communication. Seeks to inform people about a potential future harm and the associated dangers so that they might take action to mitigate the risk. It relates to the ‘mitigation’ and ‘preparedness’ part of the disaster cycle.
  2. Crisis communication. Focusses on communication during an event (‘response’ phase) and as part of ‘recovery’.

Another categorisation of disaster communication relates to the length of the communication period. ‘Acute’ communication occurs during emergencies where there is a need for rapid dissemination of lifeline information. On the other hand, ‘long term’ communication occurs over an extended period prior to and after emergency events or disasters e.g. disaster risk reduction, post-disaster reconstruction.

Disaster engagement

There is no commonly agreed definition of community engagement and the term is often used interchangeably with a number of other concepts such as consultation, participation, collaboration and empowerment, all of which are related to community engagement but do not capture all aspects of the concept.

A critical part of engagement is two-way dialogue that proactively seeks out community values, concerns and aspirations.

There are several approaches to community engagement. One approach that is universally supported is that based on the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) Spectrum. The IAP2 Spectrum depicts community engagement as a continuum, ranging from low-level engagement strategies such as consultation to high-level strategies such as empowerment.

One key point to note about this continuum is where the power lies at each of the five levels in the Spectrum. In the first three levels – ‘inform’, ‘consult’, ‘involve’ – the final decisions rest with the professionals e.g. emergency agencies, while in the fifth level power (‘empower’) it has been transferred completely to the consumers or citizens. Only at the fourth level (‘collaboration’) is there a genuine sharing of power.

The IAP2 Spectrum provides guidance on the types of activities that are appropriate for each level of engagement. The Spectrum has been incorporated into some disaster engagement guides such as Australia’s National Disaster Resilience Community Engagement Framework.

The triumvirate

From the above, the following five observations in favour of disaster ECE are made:

  1. Each of the three have strong attributes which all need to be recognised and garnered by those involved in disaster management. For instance, education is geared to achieving learning outcomes, communication is about sharing accurate and tailored information, and engagement enables community dialogue and decision-making.
  2. There are strong theoretical linkages between education, communications and engagement. For example, ‘social learning’, a domain of education, is similar in intent and implementation to ‘engagement’. The first two steps of engagement in the IAP2 Spectrum – ‘inform’ and ‘consult’ – are the same as one-way and two-way communication. Part of the cognitive learning domain in education involves the ability to critical analyse information from communication.
  3. In reality, the lines of demarcation between the three are blurred in disaster management initiatives. For example, a community event (e.g. field day, agricultural show, meet the street, community drill) designed by an emergency agency for community preparedness may have elements of all three e.g. provision of preparedness information including pre-advertising (communication), dialogue relating to possible issues and barriers to preparedness (engagement) and learning designed to make safe decisions in an emergency (education). Most public safety plans prepared by emergency agencies have elements of all three, although they are usually tagged with the name of one of them.
  4. For most of the disaster cycle, the ECE triumvirate should be in place and working seamlessly to their individual and cumulative strengths. However, if there is little warning time prior to an emergency event (e.g. earthquake, flash flood) then one-way communication in the form of an alert may be the only one of the three that is possible.
  5. Ultimately, disaster ECE leads to disaster learning which helps enable individuals and communities manage risk, make safe decisions when an emergency occurs, and recover after the event.

Upcoming posts in this blog will explore and unpack aspects of the disaster ECE triumvirate.