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  • Guest Editor collection: 13 Apr 2015 Isabel Riboldi
    Communication Officer
    World Meteorological Organization

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Isabel RiboldiCommunication Officer World Meteorological Organization (WMO)

Social aspects of flood management: from communication of flood risk to Social Impact Assessment and stakeholders’ involvement

The concept of social aspects of flood management is commonly associated with the impacts of floods on the population and/or how the characteristics of a society make it more or less vulnerable to floods. Although they correctly describe an important side of the question, id est societal vulnerability to flood hazard, another component forms an integral part of the matter: public perception of flood risk.

Recognizing that addressing both at the same time is essential for effective flood management, this editorial will focus on three specific elements that would be advisable to include in flood management policies: communication of flood risk, Social Impact Assessment and stakeholders’ involvement. Of course, the article is not deemed to be exhaustive, but tries to highlight few points relevant to flood management practitioners, in line with the concept of Integrated Water Resources Management.


In the collective imagination, floods tend to coincide with damage to properties, loss of lives and destruction of livelihoods. In reality, if we carefully reflect on this, it is not difficult to acknowledge that humanity has been living in floodplains for thousands of years exactly for the opposite reason: because floods provide natural resources and services that allow economic development. What turns a natural phenomenon bringing multiple benefits into a disaster is the interaction between the hydrological event with social, as well as environmental and economic processes. Therefore, when promoting human security and sustainable development, it is not possible to leave out of consideration the social aspects of flood management.

Although these recur in all facets of flood management and are hardly discernible from other contextual features, they can be reduced for reasons of conceptual clarity to the issues of societal vulnerability to flood hazard and public perception of flood risk.

Concerning the first, vulnerability is defined by UNISDR as “the characteristics and circumstances of a community, system or asset that make it susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard”.

In the case of floods, it is the inability of a community not only to anticipate or respond to flooding, but also to recover from it, due to certain conditions that exacerbate the severity of impacts even long after the occurrence of the disaster. These can be categorized in three major groups, interacting and reinforcing each other in a complex and dynamic relation: physical/material conditions (such as the initial well-being, weak infrastructure, occupation of a flood-prone area, degradation of the environment, etc.); constitutional/organizational conditions (like lack of leadership or organizational structure, limited access to political power or representation, weak institutions, unequal participation in community affairs, etc.); motivational/attitudinal conditions (e.g. lack of public awareness of issues, rights and obligations, beliefs, customs and attitudes, heavy dependence on external support, etc).

Many examples of social factors contributing to the transformation of a hazard into a disaster can be cited regarding floods. Poverty and the reliance on limited livelihoods, for instance, may force hired farms labourers or small landowners whose income depends on farming to migrate to cities after a flood, often obliging them to settle in unsafe informal dwellings. A low level of education could induce fatalistic attitudes towards life, resistance to adaption to changes and innovations, and lack of confidence in the social system and one’s own capacity to manage accidents. Denial of basic human rights, such as freedom of expression and association, prevents useful discussions and exchange of information about flood risk, preventive measures, and mitigation plans. Gender unbalance frequently causes women’s exclusion from knowledge and recovery means and the neglect of their wisdom and experience, which could benefit their families as well as the whole community.

Several of these factors could equally explain the concept of risk perception. While vulnerability concerns the impacts of flooding on the population and its belongings, risk perception deals with the way people perceive and understand the risk of being affected by such event. This is highly influenced by three orders of elements:

  • Risk features, relating to the physical characteristics of flooding, such as the severity of the threat, the time available between a flood warning being received and the onset of flooding, the kind of flood, and the like;
  • Situational factors, reflecting the peculiarities of the geographical and social context in which individuals live and their position in relation to them. Among these, the most relevant are experience with past flooding (the perceived likelihood of floods increases if it has already been experienced, with peaks during and immediately after their occurrence and collapses between disasters), the degree of preparedness and of control of the consequences of flooding and the so-called “levee effect” (the false sense of security induced by protection works, like dams and levees);
  • Personal characteristics, including not only the physical attributes of an individual (such as gender, age, education and income), but also his/her particular psychological composition, that accounts for particular reactions to floods and dispositions to act.

Flood risk perception determines responses to flood warnings and to efforts to increase community preparedness both at individual and public levels: no one would undertake precautionary actions, if he does not see a reason to do it.

As shown, societal vulnerability to flood hazard and public perception of flood risk are the main drivers of social resilience. Understanding and tackling both is crucial to develop effective flood management policies. This can be achieved by following different strategies, in which three components should not be missing: communication of flood risk, Social Impact Assessment and stakeholders’ involvement.

Communication of flood risk

Floods being an event characterized by high uncertainty, a well-directed communication process can foster a more adequate public response to flood management plans in general and, specifically, to emergency measures. In fact, when people understand what risk they face and know how to act before, during and after a flood, they feel less threatened and react more quickly and efficiently. Additionally, crises usually favour the production and circulation of information arising from different sources and representing various points of view and interests. Considering the fact that people normally select information that is significant to them, responds to their needs and comes from a reliable source, it is essential that authorities in charge of flood management incorporate communication in their strategies, in order to be recognised as the official source of information.

The simplest way to develop a good flood communication is to follow the journalistic formula of the Six “W” Questions: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How, an easy expedient to test if a message tells the complete story on a subject.

  • Who: Who are the main actors in flood communication? The list should include at least: flood managers, the population, media, and experts (especially social and behavioural experts). A cooperative approach among stakeholders is, of course, necessary to achieve a fluid and operative flow of information;
  • What: What kind of information does the receiver need? Essentials comprise: location and time of actual or possible flooding, explanations about warning level scales, advice on behavior, data (especially real-time data during the occurrence of a flooding event) supported by simple clarifications about how to interpret them;
  • When: When is communication about flood required? Flood communication is an ongoing activity that should take place in all phases: before floods, with the aim of prevention through the education of the population (in the sense of both awareness raising and preparedness) and training of staff; during flooding, as a warning action offering real-time data and advice on what to do/not to do; and finally, after flooding, in support to relief operations, providing information about relief measures and compensations, collecting feedback from the population, and apprising about future strategies;
  • Where: Where should flood communication be conducted? Floods know no borders, therefore communication should be conceived as a multi-scale activity, carried out at the same time: at regional level, in terms of cross-border exchange of information, common training and coordination activities; at national level, each state implementing its own plan, paying special attention to remote areas; and at local level, where the interaction with people directly affected allows a more accurate exchange of information, due to the higher credibility of native sources and the possibility to obtain feedback on past strategies;
  • Why: Why is flood communication so important? This brings us back to the concept of risk perception mentioned above: since people’s reaction in front of floods is determined by the level of danger they perceive, the effectiveness of flood management measures partially depends on the ability to ensure a correct understanding of the risk of floods;
  • How: How to best shape and frame flood communication, so that it is correctly understood? The development of a Communication Strategy allows a structured planning of the communication process and consistency with other aspects of flood management. It should encompass: a Communication Plan, assessing the actual state of communication, establishing objectives, identifying the target audience, defining responsibilities and individuating resources; a Dissemination Plan, including the choice of media and technology, the creation of the message (when selected information are adapted to designated media and audience), and the setting of the timing of dissemination actions; an Evaluation process, undertaken in the decision-making phase, during implementation and ex-post to measure impacts. This last component reminds us that a Communication Strategy is a dynamic and ongoing process that requires continuous readjustment among resources, activities, aims and tactics.

Social Impact Assessment (SIA)

Although there is no general agreement about the definition of Social Impact Assessment (SIA), it can be described as a process of analysis, follow-up and management of the expected and unexpected (positive and negative) social consequences of both planned and unplanned interventions (Vanclay, 2003). In other words, SIAs pursue the overall goal of identifying all possible impacts of a certain project on the social environment, with the final aim of avoiding, preventing and correcting negative effects on the people/communities involved. In fact, the development of an SIA does not end after the assessment phase, but it is considered completed when different options to mitigate adverse consequences and other improvements are individuated and included in the initial project proposal.

In the case of flood management, the execution of an SIA could be necessary for several reasons: to evaluate the social impacts that a flood might generate, if and when it occurs; to evaluate the social impacts produced by a flood which has already occurred; to evaluate the social impacts that programmes/projects planned to mitigate the effects of a flood could create; and, to evaluating the social impacts caused by programmes/projects conducted to mitigate the effects of a flood.

A series of different methodologies have been developed to undertake an SIA, but some common elements can be recognized in all of them.

First of all, the main exercise of an SIA consists in the creation of a map of (potential) social impacts of flooding by combining popular knowledge and technical knowledge at the level of each local community in a river basin. A repertory of all available information about the human and social environment and flood risk is built and validated multiple times through submission to all stakeholders. Once adjusted according to their knowledge and opinions, the repertory is translated into a technical document, shared with all actors involved and presented to decision-makers.

In the second place, a crucial element for the effective development of an SIA is the determination of the territorial scope of the study in relation to floods. Choosing to analyse social impacts in a small area or in the entire river basin is a very delicate decision, since projects undertaken in a delimited region could have negative consequences in others, which are not taken into account in a partial assessment. Ideally, SIAs should be conducted in the whole river basin, in order to have a complete view of all possible effects and conflictual situations.

Thirdly, when executing an SIA, but also when dealing with its results, an inclusive approach is fundamental to ensure the successful implementation of the flood management plan. To gain the support of the population, all stakeholders should be given an opportunity to express their ideas and influence the process. The deeper the involvement requested to the interested parties, the wider the final consensus will be.
This leads to the last point, stakeholders’ involvement.

Stakeholders' involvement

In the last years, the concept of stakeholders’ involvement has become a recurrent feature of many kinds of development policies, sometimes being so overexploited to partly lose its original meaning and goal. It could, perhaps, be worth to remind here why the participation of interested parties is so important in flood management. In the first place, the opportunity for the affected population to express its concerns ensures that its priorities in acting or re-acting to floods are addressed. Secondly, providing all actors the chance to share their views and to condition the decision-making process is essential to create public support to the final results, thus facilitating (if not ensuring) the implementation of the project. Additionally, when stakeholders are engaged in the planning, they are more easily committed to its realization and this guarantees the sustainability of all decisions in longer timeframes. Thirdly, the involvement of actors at different levels, especially of flood-prone communities, contributes to building resilience, not only through cooperation and coordination, but also thanks to the provision of information and know-how that bring autonomy and flexibility in decision-making and implementation. Lastly, sharing needs, knowledge and ideas enhances understanding among groups, promoting collaboration in the name of a common goal and reducing potential conflicts.

With specific regard to flood management, it is important to recall that all strategies require careful planning at the basin level, but have to be carried out within the framework of national policies and are finally implemented through single local projects. This means that the participatory process has to be realized with different modalities according to the challenges of each level, paying attention to the variation of stakeholders in the passage from a scale to another. While, for instance, at the basin level the involvement of interested parties is overriding for the setting of goals and the design of an action plan, when decisions about risks and costs sharing may cause conflicting situations, at the national level stakeholders’ involvement turns out to be more beneficial in the risk assessment phase and in the preliminary policy draft stages.

In light of the multiscale character of basin flood management plans, stakeholders’ involvement needs to be supported by an adequate institutional framework and mechanisms enabling several levels of participation. Among these, river basin organizations, disaster management committees at the national, state and district planes, community-based organizations and non-governmental organizations represent the key components of an overarching structure intended to foster dialogue among various parties.

Nevertheless, even when the enabling conditions for stakeholders’ involvement are established and the participatory process is launched, new challenges may emerge, in particular to maintain the system working. In order to tackle problems in the harmonization of activities, transboundary issues, an unequal level of competency of authorities in charge of implementation, conflicts between regional and local needs, and time constraints, two elements are crucial for the sustainability of the process: a supportive legal and institutional framework and continuous stakeholder capacity-building. As indispensable as costly, the latter constitutes an integral part of basin flood management plans implementation; as such, it should be promoted for all actors at any level, tailored on the different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, but, at the same time, aimed at the acquisition of a common base of knowledge and skills.


Communication, Social Impact Assessment and stakeholders’ involvement are very different elements in the ample domain of the social aspects of flood management, linked by the thin thread of the concepts of vulnerability and risk perception.

Nonetheless, other two considerations need to be made in relation to the prerequisites that ensure the ability of these components to determine the success of flood management plans in adequately encompassing social issues. Firstly, good governance, erected on transparency, accountability and commitment, is the foundation of any effective and sustainable policy, not only because it builds trust and, in so doing, helps earning public support, but also for the reason that sharing responsibilities and identifying clear roles engages, puts in contact and bonds all parties.

Secondly, when communicating flood risk, when conducting SIAs or when implementing participatory processes, there is no universal solution that fits all situations, levels, actors: best plans are usually local and tailored on the actual circumstances and social, economic and cultural settings. Policymakers, especially at lower scales, have the opportunity to capitalise on their connection to the territory, their proximity to the social context and their knowledge of the local historical and political conditions, as well as to make use of the experiences of those who have been living with floods for years. Let alone that utilizing the expertise of local communities presents the double advantage of allowing the creation of bespoke solutions and, at the same time, establishing a link with stakeholders.
However, native actors are not the only experts. When dealing with social issues, the involvement of specialists in social and human behaviour could be the most suitable method to investigate those aspects requiring specific psychological and sociological background. Adequate importance and necessary resources should be allocated for the engagement of these subsidiary disciplines and for the training and specialization of staff for selected tasks, like communication, SIA and community participation. Furthermore, collaboration among professionals from different fields contributes to achieving common objectives in a multidisciplinary attitude.

Applying such an approach means, of course, bearing in mind that social aspects are not disconnected from other facets of flood management. The acknowledgment of river basins as dynamic systems characterized by multiple interactions between land and water makes it necessary a continuous integration effort among all different features in every phase of the management process. In this perspective and with a view to adopt sustainability as a guiding principle, the strict twine among economic, legal, environmental, and social matters offers a unique opportunity to enhance the performance of the system as a whole to the benefit of present and future generations.

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