Remember active citizens in flood resilience

2020 Floods in the Upper Calder Valley (source: https://twitter.com/CalderdaleFound/status/1229450745126248449)

By Steven Forrest

Recent Storms Ciara and Dennis brought flooding once more to parts of the UK and caused severe damage and disruption to an estimated 1,400 homes and businesses . Now the worst of this flooding is (hopefully) over, the authorities are looking to see what could be done to avoid this damage and make places more flood resilient. Suggestions so far include more money for flood barriers, a new supercomputer to help predict flooding, natural flood management solutions (e.g. slowing water flows by using trees), and calls for more dredging and desilting of river beds. In the midst of these suggestions, we should remember to support the growing numbers of active citizens who are already trying to make their neighbourhoods more flood resilient.

Active Citizens on the Rise

Firstly, let’s look at how active citizens are getting involved in flood risk management (FRM) and how they are trying to make their neighbourhoods more flood resilient. There’s growing evidence of active citizens contributing as part of citizen initiatives and local flood groups. My own PhD research has found examples of these contributions before, during and after floods in England. In one case, flood groups created ‘flood stores’ that were stocked with recovery supplies in case of a flood. In another case, they drained and cleared ditches and watercourses to reduce flood risk. Flood groups and civil society are also able to influence flood resilience with potential contributions before flooding, during a flood and after a flood: 

The potential contributions by citizen initiatives and flood groups to flood resilience before, during and after a flood (Forrest et al., 2019)

Not only are these active citizens able to contribute to local FRM and flood resilience, but they are able to do so in ways that authorities cannot do on their own. Take the case of the Upper Calder Valley in England, citizens and flood groups acted as ‘first responders’ in the 2015 Boxing Day floods and are doing the same in the recent floods in 2020.These active citizens were the main responders and set up ‘flood hubs’, which are community-run centers that operated immediately after the 2015 floods. These ‘flood hubs’ helped citizens affected by flooding when the authorities couldn’t reach them. In 2020, the ‘flood hubs’ were once again set up and part of the local flood response. Furthermore, these active citizens are able to access place-based knowledge about flood risk and consequences that they pass on to authorities in addition to providing flood risk warnings in the other direction.

Challenges Remain

These are just a few examples of how citizens can potentially make our places more flood resilient. However, there are challenges. These active citizens are mainly volunteers and may become overburdened (i.e. ’volunteer fatigue’) in working with authorities and taking on greater responsibility for their own flood resilience. The idea of ‘becoming flood resilient’ has also been critiqued as its ‘surviving in the face of flood consequences’ narrative ignores the differences between citizens: not all citizens have the same vulnerabilities and capacities to survive floods.

Our own forthcoming research paper critically explores the ‘flood resilience’ concept and the socio-spatial inequalities that can arise. One suggestion is for flood risk management authorities to collaborate with other authority departments (e.g. education, health, and social care) so they can focus on reducing vulnerabilities and building the capacities of citizens and neighbourhoods as a key part of becoming flood resilient.

Overall, there is a need for government authorities to support and engage with citizen initiatives and community groups in new flood risk management strategies that are aiming for more flood resilient places – otherwise there’s a risk that our neighbourhoods and places will miss out on the place-based knowledge, capacities, and ideas of these active citizens. So, next time you’re in a pub discussion on the recent floods – remember the role of people and not just the supercomputers!

More information on how active citizens are influencing flood resilience can be found in these papers from my PhD research:  

RECOMS is a Marie Sklodowska Curie (MSCA) Innovative Training Network funded by the European Commission. It is comprised of a transdisciplinary consortium of scientists, practitioners and change agents from eleven public, private and non-profit organisations located in six European Union countries. RECOMS supported the technical development, hosting, and maintenance of the blog.

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