The potential flooding of a residential area not only causes anxiety and concern amongst people living there, it also induces a sense of responsibility. And that is important in stimulating preventive action. The authorities can play on it to encourage people to take precautions against advancing water.
There is more and more need to communicate about the risks of flooding
“Lord, give us this day our daily bread – and from time to time a flood.” This well-known saying in Dutch water management circles is a reminder that the actual threat of inundation is one of the best ways to raise awareness of flood prevention. Not that we really want things to go that far – after all, the Dutch are rightly proud that, despite its topography, their country rarely suffers major floods. To encourage preventive behaviour in this context, psychologists recommend a mixed approach that appeals equally to our need for security, safety and responsibility.
We used an experiment to determine what factors influence the way people try to protect themselves and limit the damage when their homes are threatened by flooding. More than 1800 respondents completed questionnaires tailored to different variants of the experiment. What we were looking for were various forms of preventive behaviour, ranging from looking for information about water levels and laying sandbags to buying a water-resistant tile floor. Whatever the variant, it was always important that the respondents realized that they had to do something themselves to mitigate the effects of the potential flood.
Our results are hugely important, because there is more and more need to communicate about the risks associated with flooding in residential and commercial districts. To guide these processes effectively, water management authorities want to know what factors they should consider when communicating on these topics with the general public. Our research shows that there are different types of people, who vary in the ways they demonstrate responsibility and what aspects they consider. Some, for example, are much more selective than others in their choice of preventive measures. And trust in the authorities’ ability to manage the risks is an important precondition for effective communication.
Wouter Botzen is Associate Professor at the Department of Environmental Economics, Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM), VU University Amsterdam. He is a visiting scholar at the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Wouter has obtained his PhD degree in economics (cum laude) for his thesis on the economics of insurance against climate change. His thesis won the Junior Societal Impact Award of the VU University in 2010 and was published in revised form by Cambridge University Press.
At IVM Wouter is involved in teaching various courses on Environmental Economics. He coordinates research on climate change economics and supervises several PhD students. His main research interests are climate change economics with a particular focus on risk, natural disaster insurance, behavioural economics of decision making under risk, and natural disaster risk assessment and management. He has published more than 50 articles in international scientific journals on these themes. His publications span top economic journals, such as International Economic Review, and multi-disciplinary journals, such as Nature and Science. He won twice the best paper award of the journal Risk Analysis and he received the Lloyd’s Science of Risk Prize in 2014.