Shifting from building defences to building resilience in Flood Risk Management

Catherine Morgan
Wednesday, 20th July 2016

In a report by World Economic Forum, Global Risks 2016, water crisis as one of the top three perceived ‘most impactful’ risks as rated by almost 750 experts and decision-makers in the World Economic Forum’s multistakeholder communities.  The potential for climate change to exacerbate water crises,  was also considered the top ‘cascading risk’ with impacts including conflicts and more forced migration, calling for improved water governance to adapt to climate change and accommodate a growing population and economic development.

Planning cities now to be resilient to future risks is crucial, rather than waiting to pick up the pieces and bear the costs of the clean-up operation - particularly given that UN projections estimate that there will be over 6 billion people living in cities by 2050 - that equates to almost two out of every three people on the planet.  Critical questions need to be considered around managing urban areas in light of the 'known unknowns' such as changes in climate, extreme weather, population increases and resource implications (such as  availability of water, food and housing). 

In our 3-year life span as the Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Network (, risk and uncertainty are themes we have explored with our members from a variety of sectors across the UK’s Flood Risk Management field.   In that timeframe we have seen a distinct shift away from concerns around building flood defences, to questions around working with communities.

     ‘How do we engage with communities?’

        ‘How do we build resilient communities?’

          ‘How do we communicate with communities to help them understand floor risk better?’

This isn’t to say that professionals working in this field are not interested in discussing technical advancements, or managing existing flood defence assets. It is, however, a clear indication of the recognition that the best Flood Risk Management schemes are often those where the local community are engaged, informed and part of the process of managing risk.   At our most recent Annual Assembly, we asked Flood Risk Managers from across a range of organisations and roles in the UK's FCERM sector to tell us what their 'matters arising' are - essentially what issues they need to discuss, need more informationa and research on, and which areas need investment.    We've undertaken this same exercise at 6 national events, and over time we've seen a gradual shift away from technical issues.  This year however, there was nothing gradual about the themes submitted. There was a clear call to discuss four emerging areas:

  • Health and well-being
  • Community Engagement
  • Emergency Response
  • Language and Communication


The recent Sustainable Cities Conference in Rotterdam highlighted this same shift towards engagement with stakeholders and communities.  The engagement showcased was with a plethora of stakeholders including planners, (who were viewed as the glue in the city), partners (who collaborate across sectors and disciplines) and other cities. 

‘City-To-City learning and sharing best practice’s and ‘Working with local communities and understanding the local context’ were two of five key themes emerging from the event that could equally be applied to Flood Risk Management planning in cities.  In one example, the City of Gothenburg (Sweden) was partnered with the City of New Orleans (US) to exchange ideas and best practices based on their similarities, as part of the United Nations’ International Strategy for Disaster Reduction “Making Cities Resilient: My City is Getting Ready” campaign.

It appears that there is much work being undertaken internationally and here in the UK to help build resilience.   As Flood Risk Managers shift their perspective towards engaging communities, we may do well to look to other disciplines where big wins are being made by drawing upon local knowledge and expertise, and sharing and learning from the transferable practices.