Guest blog by Phiala Mehring.
I had a rather interesting night last night, a public meeting. It was originally designed to address the concerns, ideas, problems and hopes of people living on a local development site (going up in and around a flood plain) and those living nearby. To cut a rather long story short (or is that a long moan short?), it didn’t go well. Our long planned collaborative meeting was, at the last minute (honestly not moaning) turning into a top down rather confrontational style meeting with the developers sat at the top table and us residents in the audience. I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out how that went.
This meeting was billed as a ‘residents liaison meeting’ and what became very apparent during the meeting was that we, the residents and locals, had a completely different understanding of what ‘residents liaison meeting’ meant, to that of the developers. Which resulted in the meeting starting on the wrong foot. Not the best place to start.
Flood Risk Management is fraught with the differing construction and meaning of words and phrases. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that flood risk management is often stymied by, as George Bernard Shaw would have said, different flood risk management groups ‘divided by a common language’.
Take resilience (I can hear fellow floodies saying, yes please, take it a long long way from me). It is, of course, a vital part of flood risk management. Particularly in a changing climate where we can no longer afford nor are even capable of preventing all flooding. And yet for many people living at risk of flooding, resilience means that the flood authorities aren’t doing what they are responsible for (see the Floods and Water Act), managing flooding, and are simply passing the problem onto the flood communities (Teflon desk style) by telling them to be more resilient.
You can easily see how that could end up with people simply not wanting to think about putting flood protection and prevention measures onto and into their homes. Through my PhD research and through being a Trustee of the National Flood Forum, I have often heard people living at risk of flooding say that they do not want to have PLR measures because someone somewhere is not doing their job and stopping them from flooding. This might sound odd (to put it mildly) but when you look at it through the lens of those living at risk of flooding it makes complete sense. Flooding unmakes your home. It takes the safe and secure and turns into the dangerous and damaged. It ruins memories (literally), it translates holidays into time spent worrying about your home, it turns rain into the very devil himself. Wouldn’t anyone want someone, anyone to STOP it happening rather than having to rely on resilience? Personally, it took me quite a few years to get over that feeling and to start to make my home and my family more resilient.
I can hear what you’re thinking. Where is she going with this? If the flood authorities and those living at risk of flooding are understanding the key words and phrases of flood risk management differently: resilience, responsible, protect, etc, then how are we to work together to manage flooding in a more effective and efficient manner? How can we work with flood communities to involve them and their knowledge in managing flooding better? Shouldn’t we be striving to situate words like ‘resilience’ in such a way that they are meaningful to the very people they are designed to protect (whoops)?
Through my research and personal experiences, I have come to realise that we need to normalise flooding and to normalise flood risk management words. We need to work together as a society to ensure that everyone understands that flooding could happen to them (you don’t need to live by a river, in fact it could be your washing machine that causes you to flood and destroys your kitchen) and that things like household level protection aren’t a stigma and sign that someone has failed at thier job, but are a sensible way of living. Like having a smoke detector or a burglar alarm. No one likes to think of being burgled, or your house catching fire or flooding and yet having a smoke alarm is normal, not a trauma to constantly remind you that your home could catch fire. Turning on your alarm becomes automatic, not a signal that your belongings are at risk of being stolen. Having a flood door, raised electrical sockets or a water-resistant kitchen is currently not normal behaviour. Why not? Being resilient it appears is the exception, why not the rule? Can’t we strive towards resilient communities in all the many forms that resilience comes in: fire, theft, drought, flooding, etc whilst ensuring that people have a good quality of life? Putting #People1st.
And whilst we are here…….. why isn’t flood resilience embedded into planning? Actually, it’s probably a good idea that you don’t get me started on that, seriously don’t, you’ll be here for a very long time.
Phiala Mehring, Trustee National Flood Forum, Independent Member Thames RFCC, PhD ‘Get your water out of my lounge’, Reading University and by day, Research Director, MMR Research Worldwide