Column | Building community resilience through flood memory

Kuttanad, Kerala
Kuttanad, Kerala. Photo: Ann Rochyne Thomas

Early human settlements flourished on floodplains because they provided fertile land and the convenience of inland navigation. Many of the world's largest urban agglomerations are still located on floodplains or deltas. Human societies have altered floodplain hydrological regimes and stretched their extremes throughout history, increasing the frequency and severity of floods. In turn, hydrological extremes have shaped societies and their governance systems. Living on floodplains necessitated the development of survivor knowledge, which was formed from a community’s geographical understanding of its environment. This collective ‘flood memory’ served as the foundation of their flood resilience.

People's response to flood risk has been significantly influenced by flood control techniques. According to the levee effect, protection against recurring flooding diminishes risk awareness, resulting in inadequate flood preparedness. Control mechanisms prolong safe times, erasing a society's collective flood memory and encouraging practices that expose them to more hydrological extremes. Their ability to cope with extreme weather events is hindered as a result. Development on floodplains is inadvertently encouraged when hard infrastructure is prioritised over participatory soft flood-mitigation techniques. This method of flood management does not deter people from settling in flood-prone areas, unless it is required by law. However, local governments frequently place a greater emphasis on minimising flood damage in the short- term, than on developing and implementing a scientific floodplain management plan.

With global flooding on the rise, we must preserve our flood memory even when conditions are safe. Regular neighbourhood risk assessments can assist communities in preserving their collective flood memory, as well as individual survivor knowledge, both of which are essential for establishing an efficient flood management plan. A community that regularly monitors flood risks recognises the delicate balance of its environment, and will be more inclined to structure its growth and development around natural processes, rather than against them.

Environmental cognition is greatly influenced by public opinion, or the socio-psychological dynamics of a community. Flood risk perception differs by region, by income group, and even by gender. Economically and politically disadvantaged people are less likely to trust their own resilience strategies, which are based on local knowledge and collective flood memory. The ineffectiveness of previous interventions, lowers their confidence in their own capacity to implement precautionary measures. This drives them to adopt fatalistic thinking. Increased community resilience can be achieved through the comprehensive analysis of residents’ flood risk perceptions. People can more effectively convey their views of risk and resilience based on their lived experiences and their capacity to discern pockets of risk in relatively safe places, when projects are designed with them from the conception stage. Externally-sponsored resilience projects usually disregard opinions of flood-prone populations, that differ from their own. As a result, numerous flood management plans have failed miserably.

A less-discussed aspect of flood management is how people perceive themselves in relation to water – as stewards of the elixir of life or as victims of an untamed natural force. A community’s perception of how and where water should flow influences their ability to resist, to cope with, adapt to, and recover from the adverse impacts of a flooding event. Despite the fact that fear is frequently used to improve risk perception, research indicates that there are other, more constructive methods. The preservation of flood memory does not imply that communities must live in constant fear of flooding. They can keep their flood memory alive by embracing water and aligning societal development with natural processes.

At a recent flood resilience workshop (Vellathinulla Vazhi) in Kuttanad, conducted by the Centre for Climate Resilience and M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, a few residents lamented how fear of water had begun to pervade society, particularly among the youth. Until recently, this was unheard of in this region. When positive interactions with water are lacking, people fear it. And it is very difficult to embrace what is feared. Local governments must create safe environments for the community to develop a positive perception of water as part of their flood preparedness strategy. In water-centric communities such as those in Kuttanad, the focus must be on sustainable livelihood development aligned with local aspirations, and not be restricted to disaster risk reduction.

Hydrological modelling can leverage community perceptions of water and flood risk to generate more accurate vulnerability predictions. What is required is a dynamic approach to risk quantification, based on trans-disciplinary analysis between societal development, floodplain hydrology and disaster management, and their co-evolutionary linkages. Such socio-hydrological models can aid in the development of a more nuanced understanding of community perceptions, which can inform contextually appropriate flood mitigation and adaptation investments at the local level.

(Ann Rochyne Thomas is a bio-climatic spatial planner and founder of Centre for Climate Resilience - a sustainability and climate change advisory.)

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