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Research on public responses to flood risk

Flooding in LeedsPeople who know they live or work in areas of high flood risk rarely take any precautions to protect their homes and businesses – even when they know, from experience, how damaging flooding can be. Dr Tim Harries researches this phenomenon and advises the Department of Environment (Defra) and the Environment Agency on how to improve the take-up of measures that can reduce the loss, disruption and ill-health floods can cause householders and small businesses.

Dr Harries’ research suggests that a major problem is lack of faith in the available means of providing protection from floods (e.g. flood resistant barriers) and a resulting fear that the use of untested and potentially unreliable measures will increase anxiety rather than reduce it. (see: Feeling secure or being secure? Why it can seem better not to protect yourself against a natural hazard and his forthcoming paper in the journal, Environment and Planning A).

Business protected from floods with floodguardDr Harries’ work points to the importance of familiarity and perceived normality for the adoption of measures. People are often happy to rely on insurance for the mitigation of flood risk even though it does little to protect them from the disruption caused by a flood and normally only reimburses a portion of the financial losses incurred. Similarly, although sandbags are relatively ineffective, their use is so strongly associated with floods that they remain the most favoured means of flood protection. (see: Review of the pilot flood protection grant scheme in a recently flooded area.)

He argues that risk professionals are less able to promote flood protection measures effectively if they fail to recognise these influences on public behaviour and practice. They are usually trained to focus on the physical, material aspects of floods and flood damage. As a result, they find it hard to recognise and respond to the very real and significant social and emotional barriers that hinder protective action. (see: Victim pressure, institutional inertia and climate change adaptation: the case of flood risk and Dr Harries’ recent research with micro-businesses.)

Sandbags to protect against floodsDr Harries’ research suggests that to reduce the anxiety associated with property-level flood protection measures, these measures need to be normalised. People are less anxious about taking an unfamiliar measure if their neighbours are also doing so. Furthermore, the shared use of protection measures reinforces the sense of solidarity that is also important to the resilience of high-risk communities. Such measures should therefore be promoted to groups of householders and small businesses rather than just to individuals.

Governments still, in many instances, use engineering to reduce the likelihood of floods posing a threat to homes and businesses. However, as climate change causes flood risk to increase and spread, this approach is becoming less environmentally and economically sustainable. It is therefore increasingly important that ways are found to encourage householders and businesses in areas of high flood risk to actively engage with the issue of protecting themselves, their families, their properties and their livelihoods.

View Dr Tim Harries' personal profile for further information and contact details


Associate Dean for Research
Prof Robert Blackburn

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