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Early human settlements thrived on floodplains because they offered fertile land and the convenience of inland navigation. Many of the world’s largest urban agglomerations still lie within floodplains or deltas. Human societies throughout history have altered the hydrological systems of flood plains and extended their extremes, thereby increasing the frequency and severity of floods. Hydrological extremes, in turn, have shaped societies and their systems of government. Living in floodplains required the development of survival knowledge, which evolved from a community’s geographical understanding of its environment. This collective “flood memory” served as the basis for their resilience to flooding.

Human response to flood risk has been significantly influenced by flood control techniques. After the dyke effect, protection against recurring floods reduces risk awareness, resulting in inadequate flood prevention. Control mechanisms extend safe times, erase a society’s collective flood memory, and encourage practices that expose them to greater hydrological extremes. This will affect their ability to cope with extreme weather events. Floodplain development is inadvertently encouraged when hard infrastructure is prioritized over participatory soft flood mitigation techniques. This method of flood management does not discourage people from settling in flood prone areas unless required by law. However, local governments often place more emphasis on minimizing flood damage in the short-term than on developing and implementing a scientific floodplain management plan.

With flooding increasing around the world, we must preserve our memory of the flood even when conditions are safe. Regular neighborhood risk assessments can help communities preserve their collective flood memory as well as the knowledge of individual survivors, both of which are essential to creating an effective flood management plan. A community that regularly monitors flood risks recognizes the delicate balance of its environment and will be more inclined to structure its growth and development around, rather than against, natural processes.

Perceptions of the environment are strongly influenced by public opinion or the socio-psychological dynamics of a community. Perceptions of flood risk vary by region, income group and even gender. Economically and politically disadvantaged people have less faith in their own resilience strategies based on local knowledge and collective flood memory. The ineffectiveness of previous interventions reduces confidence in one’s own ability to implement preventive measures. This drives them to fatalistic thinking. Through the comprehensive analysis of the flood risk perception of the residents, an increased resilience of the community can be achieved. People can more effectively communicate their views on risk and resilience based on their lived experiences and their ability to spot pockets of risk in relatively safe places when projects are designed with them from the conception phase. Externally funded resilience projects tend to ignore 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 man’s perception of himself in relation to water – as steward of the elixir of life or as victim of an untamed force of nature. A community’s perception of how and where water should flow affects its ability to withstand, cope with, adapt to, and recover from the adverse effects of a flood event. Despite the fact that fear is often used to improve risk perception, research suggests that there are other, more constructive methods. Preserving flood memory does not mean that communities have to live in constant fear of flooding. They can keep their flood memory alive by adopting water and aligning social development with natural processes.

At a recent workshop on flood resilience (Vellathinulla Vazhi) in Kuttanad, hosted by the Center for Climate Resilience and MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, some residents lamented how fear of water has started to permeate society, particularly among youth. Until recently this was unknown in this region. In the absence of positive interactions with water, people are afraid of it. And it is very difficult to embrace what is feared. Local governments need to create safe environments where the community can develop a positive perception of water as part of their flood preparedness strategy. In water-centric communities like those in Kuttanad, the focus must be on sustainable livelihood development aligned with local aspirations and not limited to disaster risk reduction.

Hydrological modeling can use community perceptions of water and flood risks to make more accurate predictions of vulnerability. What is required is a dynamic approach to risk quantification, based on a transdisciplinary analysis between societal development, floodplain hydrology and disaster management and their co-evolutionary linkages. Such socio-hydrological models can assist in developing a more nuanced understanding of community perceptions that can inform contextually appropriate flood mitigation and adaptation investments at the local scale.

(Ann Rochyne Thomas is an interdisciplinary biologist and the founder of the Center for Climate Resilience – a sustainability and climate change consultancy.)

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