Water, flooding and public trust

Flowing river8 December 2011

Water resources in the UK are under pressure, with an increasing population, rising water demand, damaged ecosystems and flooding all taking their toll. The Government’s white paper Water for Life was published today, highlighting challenges and policy options on how to tackle water abstraction, pollution, consumer habits and innovation in the sector.

A number of ESRC-funded research projects have examined issue of water management. Catchment Hydrology, Resources, Economics and Management, led by Professor Ian Bateman, examines the costs and benefits of changing farming and community practices to produce a healthy and sustainable river environment. This project, at the Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment, was part of the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (RELU).

Integrated land and water management in floodplains: experience of agricultural flood defence schemes in England and Wales looked at how land and water resources in floodplains can be managed to achieve desirable outcomes such as food production, nature conservation and flood risk management. The project, led by Professor Joe Morris, also developed a framework to assess the relative performance of alternative land use scenarios.

Flooding can have a serious impact not only in terms of polluting water resources, but also on issues of trust. Towns or villages experiencing repeated flooding have left residents feeling ignored and abandoned by the authorities, and can lead to the breakdown of trust in the organisations involved - making solutions even more difficult to achieve. The RELU project Understanding Environmental Knowledge Controversies: The Case of Flood Risk Management has won an award for innovative methodology in breaking down barriers and encouraging dialogue.

The project team, led by Professor Sarah Whatmore, sought to understand the public controversies generated by flood risk management, and the forecasting technologies on which it relies. They combined techniques for modelling flood risk with a new method for engaging local people who have experienced flooding. This involved the project team and volunteer residents working together in ‘competency groups’ designed to combine scientific and local expertise. The method was trialled in two localities where flood management already had been questioned - Ryedale in Yorkshire and the Uck catchment in Sussex.

This approach works to 'slow down reasoning' such that, first, the expert knowledge claims and practices used in flood management can be interrogated by those affected by them on the ground. Group participants can then try out different ways of understanding local flooding problems and the effects of alternative forms of intervention to deal with flood risk.

The residents were able to try out for themselves how flood risk modelling works and feed their local expertise into the process. This was supplemented by field visits, analyses of video and photographic records, and other collaborative activities.

"This was a novel approach and required quite a leap of faith for everyone involved," said Professor Sarah Whatmore. "Making a research intervention in contexts in which flood risk management was already a matter of public controversy was challenging for the project team. For the residents who volunteered to work with us it required extraordinary commitment to the process and to this method of producing collaborative knowledge. This methodology worked well in the case of flooding and has resulted in new flood risk management options, but it could also work with different kinds of environmental knowledge controversy and we have produced web-resources to enable others to try it out."

The project was awarded The Rural Economy and Land Use Programme’s Award for Best example of Innovative Methodology at their conference ‘Who Should Run the Countryside’ in November 2011.