Who should be contributing to flood risk management?

People and their behaviour influence flood risk
Nick Mount
Thursday, 4th September 2014

Who should be contributing to flood risk management?  Is it time for a rebalancing of the disciplines?

One of the things about flood risk that makes it such a tricky problem to deal with is the central role that people play in influencing risk through patterns of behaviour that can have a significant effect on the consequence of a flood.  In many ways things were far easier when quantifying flood likelihood was the name of the game – after all, the physical system, although complex, can at least be quantified and tends to behave in fairly predictable ways!  Back then, the primary objective of flood management was to develop solutions that could alter the behaviour of the physical system in a beneficial manner, and ensure that the altered behaviour would be maintained across a range of pre-specified flood likelihoods.  This was the domain of the physical scientist and engineer who was well trained, well equipped and confident to perform the task.

Now, many of the same scientists and engineers are being asked to develop flood-risk management solutions that seek to reduce both the consequences of flooding when it occurs, and the likelihood of its occurrence.  Introducing consequence into the mix has meant that flood risk solutions must consider the beneficial and negative impacts that human behaviour may have (as expressed through individual and group actions or the aggregated behaviours of social, cultural, economic and political systems) alongside, and in conjunction with, the behaviours of the physical system.  Understanding and addressing these additional, human considerations is arguably something that physical scientists and engineers are far less well trained, equipped or confident to do - yet they continue to maintain their position as the leaders of flood risk science in the UK. 

The prime status of science and engineering in UK flood risk management is well illustrated by a quick search for “flood risk” on the Research Council UK research gateway.  Although this is hardly a comprehensive assessment of research funding allocation, it does reveal a strong, disciplinary division in the distribution of funds.  A total of ~£44 million of flood-risk related research grants awarded since 2006, with 46% funded by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council, and 46% by the Natural Environment Research Council (both dominated by physical scientists and engineers).  Only 5% was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and less than 0.5% was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council – the two councils most concerned with understanding and influencing human behaviour in social, cultural, economic and political contexts.  This seems to indicate the ongoing existence of a systemic imbalance between the aims and objectives of contemporary flood risk management and the academic disciplines and practical expertise that are being funded and tasked with delivering them.

Of course, for those of us working at the ‘purer’ end of the physical science and engineering disciplines (which includes me) it is tempting to ignore, or even seek to reinforce this imbalance by arguing that it ensures our critical work is adequately funded so that our knowledge can be used to develop the best possible flood-risk solutions.  Yet here, of course, the argument begins to break down.  Engineering and physical science solutions do not and cannot function in contextual isolation – the support for their implementation and the effectiveness with which they will function over their design life will ultimately be determined by social, political and economic factors.  A sub-optimal flood-risk management solution that is widely supported, and that engenders the behavioural change required to ensure its successful implementation and maintenance will always be more effective than an optimal one that does not.  The difference between a successful outcome and an unsuccessful one is not down to the science or engineering per se, but the extent to which it’s potential for success is supported by the human behaviours necessary to ensure it.

So, this raises a critical question about who should be leading and contributing to flood-risk management.  The diversity of different flooding contexts prevents a simplistic, one-size-fits-all answer to this question.  Nonetheless, it is notable that those who are arguably the most skilled at understanding how to influence human behaviour (e.g. social scientists, social psychologists, behavioural scientists, marketeers, corporate behaviour experts, artists etc.) are neither the primary recipients of flood-risk related research funding or the leading members of the networks that support flood-risk research and practice.  This is particularly surprising given that there are numerous examples of successful attempts to alter human behaviour, with the express objective of reducing serious and / or significant risks, which emanate from these disciplines (e.g. vaccination and public health programmes, public and road safety campaigns, crime prevention programmes etc.).  It seems that the lessons that have been learnt outside of flood-risk management have yet to be translated for, or transferred into the challenges that we face.  There is a breadth of expertise out there that we are failing to engage with, and it does make me wonder whether we are, perhaps, missing a trick…

If the nature of the game changes, it may be wise to adjust the composition of the team that is fielded to play it.  There is no doubt that, with a shift towards risk-based approaches, the nature of flood management has changed substantially over the last decade.  Perhaps, therefore, it is time for some radical thinking about the composition of the team that is fielded to address it.

Dr Nick Mount, Associate Professor of Hydroinformatics, University of Nottingham.