‘Ostriches or meerkats? Attitudes towards future adaptation’

Meerkats Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, South Africa.  Photo by Charlesjsharp. November 2014. File is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license (CC-BY-SA 4.0
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Thursday, 11th December 2014

‘Ostriches or meerkats? Meeting the challenge of differing attitudes towards future adaptation’

A few years ago I did an interview with a coastal planner who was working with communities on a proposed Shoreline Management Plan. He told me about two neighbouring villages that were both affected by coastal change. One of these communities was totally unwilling to acknowledge that change at the coast was happening; they insisted on the maintenance and improvement of their existing defences and refused to consider alternative scenarios. The other community had, albeit reluctantly at first, accepted that change was happening and had decided to work with the local authorities to consider options for dealing with the change, and which would ensure the future socio-economic viability of the community.  The planner referred to these two communities as the ‘ostriches’ and the ‘meerkats’ and the analogy is a useful one for FCERM generally.

Over the next century it is predicted that the social and economic impacts of flooding will intensify. We know that over 6 million UK properties are at risk from flooding or coastal erosion, and this number is likely to increase with future climate change. There has been much debate over the last year on how we address these challenges and adapt to living with these future risks. The government has published a six year programme of investment in flood defences, allocating £2.3bn of capital funding to provide for investment in more than 1,400 new schemes. Although this increased spending and projected reduction in overall flood risk is welcome, it may imply for many people that flood defence is the only way forward rather than considering a broader mix of structural and non-structural measures and adaptation strategies. A particular challenge is how we deal with the differing perceptions and attitudes of individuals and communities on this subject.

Many people are still unaware of the risk they may face, not just from river floods but from the threat of coastal flooding, surface or ground water flooding or coastal change. The way climate change is communicated (e.g. as a future risk), the lack of awareness of impacts and what actions to take often leads to apathy. Risk perception is dependent on a number of factors including personal experience of the hazard, community memory and local knowledge, education, expectations of management authorities as well as various psychological and cultural factors. Even where people may be aware of the risk, they may still choose to ignore it. Some, like the ostrich community, bury their heads in the sand, deny the inevitable and refuse to consider any alternatives.

This denial of the risk, or refusal to address it, may be for a number of reasons – some of them perfectly understandable. Firstly, people may have other more pressing priorities: paying the mortgage, keeping their job, their children’s education. Others may choose to deny the threat because they cannot bear to think about it. For this group past experience of flooding may have been traumatic and they do not want to be reminded that it could happen again. Alternatively, they may not want to acknowledge that their home is at risk in case it affects its future saleability or insurance cover. Yet more individuals may be aware of the risks, but simply not have the resources or the capacity with which to respond.

People may also ignore the risk simply because they do not have the information that they need to make informed decisions and to take appropriate actions; they may also not know where to find this information. The structural defences protecting the ostrich community mentioned above had remained pretty static since Victorian times; this was in fact the issue as people expected them to remain static and would not accept the need for change. Nor was there understanding of the reasons for not continuing to defend the coastline because the defences had always been there during their lifetime.

Last winter’s floods demonstrate that communities at high risk are likely to become increasingly vocal if their demands for government funding to support flood alleviation schemes are unmet and increasingly outraged if flooding then occurs. With the devolution of risk responsibility from central government to communities, flood risk management advocates personal acceptance of flood risk and encourages individuals and communities to become more resilient to flooding through increased risk perception as well as flood awareness and preparedness activities. However, many members of the public still delegate responsibility to local agencies and believe that the associated costs should be borne by these agencies.  Attributing blame on the causes of flooding is another means by which people are able to deny risk and fail to recognise personal responsibility.

In contrast to the ostriches, some individuals and communities have met the risk of flooding or coastal change head on. The second community mentioned above had accepted change and had sought an alternative vision for their future, one that they could be a part of. This community, like meerkats, had worked in partnership with others in their group (local councils and community groups) to achieve the best possible outcome for their community and its future survival. They had scanned the horizon, like meerkats, to keep an eye out for danger (future risk) and for ways to address the risks and adapt. The reason this community was able to accept change was because they had experienced that change first hand and seen their defences fail. They could see no prospect of new coastal defences on the horizon so it was therefore much easier to establish a new vision for them; one difficulty lies in convincing communities that have no such experience.

Importantly, the meerkat community was able to accept what is coming because they had people working with them to help them understand it and who had the tools to help them to manage change. There is a need to move to solutions that not only endeavour to prevent or to mitigate the effects of flooding and climate change but also to incorporate a vision for the future that results in positive long-term outcomes for communities. We need communities to understand that the status quo is not really an option. It seems clear therefore that you can only get people to understand change if they can understand the reasons for that change and can see that where they are going is better than where they are at the moment, or might be in the near future. People will only accept change if they perceive that change as something positive. This involves demonstrating some sort of vision for a new positive future. Visualising a resilient future is itself a challenge as it includes an understanding of what places mean to people. The arts and humanities are particularly good at providing this understanding and should be included in an integrated and multi-disciplinary response that brings together a wide range of expertise. We also need to demonstrate the steps that are necessary to achieve the vision and help communities to put those steps in place. Change may not happen overnight but it will begin to move communities in the right direction.

One problem is that representative democracy is only ever going to think short term; no politicians are going to plan for the demise of a community in 150 years’ time. Government officials also need to adopt a future vision and (where appropriate) take their own heads out of the sand. We have the technology, we can improve the communication of risks and provide life-long education about them, we can also learn from each other. This morning (11th December) as I was finishing this blog the Royal Society published a report on Resilience to Extreme Weather which critically reviews the available evidence on trends in extreme weather and the different ways to build resilience. According to the report, such resilience requires comprehensive forward planning, the consideration of long timescales and support and enablement of local action. The authors show how, with early planning and investment, societies can do more than simply cope with extreme weather, and can instead adapt, progress and develop to build resilience; the focus is on positive adaptation and transformation.

As a society we therefore need to decide whether we want to be ostriches or meerkats. Rather than reacting to events we need to shape our future vision for flood and coastal risk management like the meerkat community. Meerkats are not naturally attracted to water and will find a way to avoid it if possible, much the same as we seek to avoid flood water. They are also social animals that demonstrate altruistic behaviour within their colonies. We already have lots of good examples where communities are learning to adapt but they need help, as do the remaining ostriches. Of course in reality ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand – they lie low at the approach of trouble and press their necks to the ground in an attempt to become less visible - but the effect is the same. If we compare the meerkat (no advertising intended) and the ostrich it seems obvious which is likely to become the most resilient in the future.

Sue Tapsell is Head of the Flood Hazard Research Centre (FHRC) at Middlesex University,  a world centre of expertise in the socio-economic assessment of flood and floodplain management options. Sue has over 20 years of experience in designing and managing research projects in relation to flooding. Her research interests largely focus on the social aspects of FCERM with early research focused on the public perception of flood risk and flood defence schemes; more recent interests include the human ‘intangible’ impacts of flooding such as the impacts on human health and wellbeing, vulnerability analysis, community resilience and adaptation.