Are we setting the right tone and using the right language, when we talk to people and communities about the flood risks they face, asks Phiala Mehring
I’m one of the lucky ones. When flooding hit my area, the water didn’t enter my home. It lapped at the garage door but never quite got high enough to ooze under the front door or seep into the air bricks.
But although the flood water didn’t damage my home it left its mark on me; an enduring psychological imprint. After the flood, it felt like my life folded in around flooding – or rather, not flooding.
Checking weather forecasts and river levels became a daily ritual. I know a floodie – that’s what we call someone who lives at risk of flooding – who has 23 weather-related apps on his phone, just to make sure. At the weekends, I would walk to check local flood assets. And when it rained, my stress levels went through the roof.
I set up a flood group, then a flood partnership, not just to manage my flood risk but because it was the only control I had. So many fellow floodies have done likewise. Flooding robs you of control.
I got involved in developing the Floods Act. I scrutinised flood-risk assessments for local developments, I joined committees. I read policies. Goodness knows how many consultations I completed. Flooding didn’t just flood my close, it flooded my life.
Seventeen years after that first incident, flooding is still central to my life. I hear stories like mine all the time, as a vice-chair of the National Flood Forum and as a part-time PhD, researching the impacts of floods.
Recently, I interviewed a woman diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder – it’s distressing how common PTSD is amongst floodies. I asked whether her husband was similarly impacted.
“Well,” she said. “Not so much. But if it rains at night, I often find him sitting by our bedroom window checking conditions outside. He’ll do it all night if there’s very heavy rain. If fact, we now have a rota so both of us can have at least some sleep.”
Imagine living like that.
Another interviewee has a military-style procedure before going on holiday, prepping the house and enlisting friends and neighbours for a round-the-clock vigil. Once he’s on holiday, he checks his weather apps and, if he sees that rain is forecast, he sends the enlisted to check the local flood assets and to monitor the river and the water coming off a new local development, with instructions to report back. With photos. Flooding even floods his holiday.
Flooding is clearly not just about water. In fact, flood water is only the start of flooding. Floodies experience flooding throughout their everyday lives. That impact goes on for years and years and years.
This begs the question: what does flooding mean to the risk-management authorities (RMAs)? What I’ve learned from my interviews is that RMAs construct flooding around return periods, heights, cost-benefit ratios and residual risk.
One RMA interviewee lamented that they fail “to talk about the impact of flooding”, and focus instead on the numbers. This is a very literal construction, which of course makes sense in the context of having to evaluate flood-risk management so that limited funding is wisely spent. It does rather strip out our humanity.
So if flooding means different things to different people, doesn’t that make communicating a tad difficult? And that gets in the way of “engagement”.
So many #floodwords hinder communication. Even “engagement” is fraught with double meanings. Flood communities lament that their local flood authorities don’t engage with them. Talk to the flood authorities, and they insist they do engage. There’s lots and lots of engagement.
Flood authorities often run events to help the community become more “resilient” – we’ll come to that #floodword later – and arrange huge letter drops to urge people to sign up to flood warnings. They even knock on doors to ask people to sign up to those warnings or to distribute information packs about householders’ riparian responsibilities.
My interviewees have a lot to say about “engagement”.
To many flood communities, it just isn’t engagement. To them, engagement equals partnerships with the RMAs that allow everyone to work together to reduce flood risk. That would mean the flood authorities tapping local knowledge to augment models – developing relationships that build trust.
For floodies, engagement means “time, trust, two-way communication” in working with the flood authorities to reduce their risk of flooding. That engagement has to be equitable and mutual; it cannot put all the onus on the flood communities. That last point is a common refrain among floodies.
One of my interviewees described a flood authority team entering their village, wandering around taking photos, measuring things then leaving. Without saying a word to the community, leaving them with no idea what was going on. Did it mean they would get a flood-alleviation scheme or would the evidence make a case against such a scheme, instead pushing property flood resilience?
By not engaging with the community, a simple, non-discursive visit triggered conspiracy theories that only added to people’s stress. Which is the last thing flood communities need.
Resilience is another #floodword. A #floodword with the power to destroy trust. Too often, it creates a them-and-us approach to flood-risk management that undermines engagement.
Of course, resilience is one of the most important elements of flood-risk management. But flood communities interpret the message as “you flood because you are not resilient”. One interviewee describes this as “being foisted upon the very people who don’t have the facilities to deal with [resilience]”.
Resilience is gaining a second negative connotation. More and more members of the flood community suspect that property flood resilience (PFR) is the means by which the flood authorities “wash their hands” of properly managing flooding, as one interviewee put it.
That leads to the conclusion that, if you get a PFR grant, you cannot expect your flood risk to be managed properly, long term, creating “a Catch-22 situation: if you accept PFRs, that’s them dusted and gone”.
And so resilience is little more than “a sticking plaster”, in lieu of flood-risk management. In today’s world of climate change, is this the message we want to communicate, whether we mean to or not?
There are many, many other #floodwords; protection, consultation, partnership working... For me, trust is the word that matters. As flood risk increases, many communities are unaware that this includes them.
Engaging with these communities, connecting them to flooding is a challenge. So many RMAs say they cannot get the local community to trust them and their expertise. RMAs frame trust around the information and the models they use. But how can a community trust expertise that doesn’t resonate with their experiences and their local knowledge?
Imagine having lived in your home for three decades, to have a complete stranger knock on your door to say you are at risk of flooding “because the flood model says so”. What do you believe; a model that simulates the area – or your lived experience of more than 30 years?
My research shows that what matters is trust in people – not models or expertise. My RMA interviews show you get a lot further discussing flooding if you build on a pre-existing relationship with that community, which creates communications based on trust.
But what I also hear is that RMAs struggle to establish these critical relationships – and that becomes harder still when an official rocks up in RMA livery. Fifty interviews in, I hear time and time again the plea for a neutral intermediary.
The official entering a community representing the Environment Agency or Lead Local Flood authority will come up against a lot of unconscious prejudice, that may or may not be based on what their organisation has or hasn’t done in the past. Politics and the organisations’ paymasters play their part here, however well-intentioned the individual.
All of this creates barriers. So why not bring in organisations such as the National Flood Forum to act as a neutral broker between flood communities and flood authorities, to build relationships between the various groups that, in time, will establish trust? Better still, if an RMA finds itself working in an area with no flood group, have the neutral facilitator set one up. Imagine the work that would save.
By now, you’ve probably worked out what my research has concluded. If #floodwords mean different things to different people, the only way round this problem is to develop a joint understanding of flooding and its impacts. That means talking, listening and working with flood communities.
What’s flood got to do with it? Not as much as you would think. What have people and relationships got to do with it? Everything.
Phiala Mehring is research director for a global research agency by day. She is half way through a PhD, Get your water out of my lounge, that aims to understand the differing construction of flooding and flood-risk management amongst flood communities and flood authorities. She is vice-chair of the National Flood Forum, an intendant member of the Thames RFCC and a member of London Catchment Partnership (CaBA)
CIWEM now manages Flood and Coast. The 2020 conference and exhibition takes place in Telford in June