Building flood resilient societies

Dr Steven Forrest, Lecturer in Flood Resilience and Sustainable Transformations in the University of Hull’s Energy and Environment Institute, reflects on the insights shared at an emergency and disasters conference in The Netherlands and the need for government, businesses, universities and communities to all work together to build flood resilient societies.

Extreme weather events have hit the headlines recently with many Met Office warnings and flood events hitting parts of the UK, France and Denmark. Storms Babet, Ciarán and Debi have brought windy conditions and disruption as homes have been flooded, businesses affected, and public spaces inundated. In the midst of this, I was attending the ‘Northern European Conference on Emergency and Disaster Studies’ in the Netherlands. The conference gathered academics and practitioners to focus on ‘building disaster resilient societies’ with many discussions on the problem of flooding. Here I share 3 key reflections from the conference on building a flood resilient society:

1) Flooding is an urgent societal and environmental problem that is predicted to get worse. There were many examples of recent flood disasters, including from the 2021 floods in the Netherlands and those that happened earlier this year in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. In each case, there were stories of those badly affected by flooding and the challenges in both crisis management as well as in the recovery process after the flood. The keynote speakers reminded us of predictions of worsening flooding as the result of climate change. It is an enormous challenge that needs our attention.

Vietnamese youth on bikes in flood

2) At the same time there is hope for dealing with flooding. Throughout the conference there was an acknowledgement of the challenges in disaster management and the importance of developing capacities, preparing for floods, and understanding that we can design our cities to be better prepared for flooding. To deal with flooding we need to seek collaborations and bring together those with expertise from geography, law, engineering, education, social work, environmental studies and many more disciplines to aim for flood resilient societies. The conference location is intricately linked to flooding as one speaker jokingly reminded us “God built the world, but the Dutch built The Netherlands” – referring to the long history of managing water, reclaiming land from the water, and in dealing with floods in the Netherlands.

3) Countries face similar flood problems and there is an opportunity to learn from one another. At the conference I was co-convening a session on ‘Flood Risk Governance: International Perspectives to Building Flood Resilient Societies’ with Dr Anne Bach Nielsen from the University of Copenhagen. As organisers, we were able to bring together researchers from across the world to present their findings on flood risk management practices from a total of nine different countries, ranging from The Netherlands, to India, Canada, Iran and even Burkina Faso. The talks were fascinating as we learnt about reappearing land and ‘land guards’, forced relocation away from flood-hit areas, and instances where flood protection of the countryside was prioritised over protecting the city. Throughout the talks, there were similar issues coming up in these diverse contexts – that of the role of the government, the capacity of citizens, land ownership, and the question of how to build ‘fair’ flood resilient societies.

Overall, flooding is a challenge and there is a need for creative solutions that draw from all disciplines and fields of study. There is a role for government, businesses and communities but there is still much discussion over the distribution of responsibility. Throughout the conference there was a lot of debate on how academics and practitioners can best engage with communities and use the process of research as a way to build capacity – to make more flood resilient societies. To get there we still need to solve problems over how to fund flood risk management, how best to foster collaboration across disciplines as well as the challenge of being able to learn from flood disasters. In my opinion, the next step is to strengthen the connections between academics, practitioners, communities and policymakers – only by working together to identify local priorities and needs can we start to build flood resilient societies.

Dr Steven Forrest is Programme Director of the MSc in Flood Risk Management at the University of Hull.

The University of Hull is a member of the Living with Water partnership that focuses on building flood resilience across Hull and the East Riding.

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