Flood risk awareness is the cornerstone of non-structural flood risk management. All actions to minimize the impact of flooding hinge upon stakeholders becoming aware these are both necessary and desirable. Ignorance of flood risk encourages occupation of the floodplain, in the first instance, and can allow appropriate building design practices to fall into disuse. In the event of a flood, the lack of awareness of risk can result in a failure to heed warnings to evacuate, thereby endangering lives.
Awareness campaign design
Different interest groups need to be made aware of the risks they face and the steps that they can take to reduce these risks. The range of interest groups involved includes governments (at different levels), local agencies, businesses and individuals. Many people will fall into more than one of these groups, so the messages need to be consistent across interest groups and yet be targeted to the knowledge requirements of each group.
As a guide, the basic principles are that:
- Implementation should be sensitive to local cultures, conditions and perspectives.
- All sectors of society should be targeted, including both decision makers and members of the public, including children.
- Messages should be targeted at the appropriate level for each interest group.
- Campaigns should be sustained over time, with regular monitoring of their success.
As an example, an awareness raising campaign developed by the Environment Agency (the institution responsible for such work in England and Wales) which was first launched after severe flooding in 1998, had the following communications objectives:
- Keep flooding in the national consciousness
- Ensure people understand the impact of flooding
- Make flooding relevant to everyone who is at risk
- Break complacency and encourage action
- Demonstrate that the Environment Agency is a proactive partner in flooding for those at risk.
These objectives were achieved by using both a ‘top down’ and a ‘bottom up’ approach: national awareness campaigns were backed up by local flood fairs and activities designed to reach the population most at risk.
The suitability of different communication channels will be dependent on the target audience and cultural considerations. It is important for communicators to realize that messages regarding flood risk are competing in an environment of ‘information bombardment’; this means that single messages are unlikely to make an impact. The literacy and language skills of the intended audience are also critical factors in campaign design.
Care should be taken to select media which will not only reach the sectors of the population most at risk, but also those best able to target ‘hard to reach’ audiences.
It is also a matter for debate whether the awareness of flood risk should be part of a general disaster awareness program, or should stand alone. In coastal areas there is a need to include earthquake risk with seismic induced tsunami coastal flooding. In communities at risk from multiple hazards, or cascading risks, a general ’hazard preparedness’ approach may be appropriate. A balance has to be struck between the reduced cost on the one hand and dilution of focus on the other.
Visual clues in the landscape
Building awareness into the fabric of the community can be a way to alert both local and transient populations to the dangers they may face. In coastal resort areas in particular, the presence of large numbers of visitors may put those unfamiliar with the area at risk: this was the case in the December 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Visual clues can include flood markers on buildings, bridges, poles or marked boundary lines.
The awareness of flood risk is likely to be heightened after an event or a flood awareness campaign. However, some communities can soon forget about flooding, or the effects of it on those who have survived a serious event. Measuring outcomes of flood awareness raising activities is, therefore, important, as the benefits will not be realized until a flood event occurs. It is also important to regularly monitor the level of flood awareness, so that new or heightened campaigns can be introduced as necessary. The impact of a campaign will inevitably diminish over time; new materials and channels may need to be introduced to get the messages across. Surveys of awareness not only serve the purpose of monitoring but can also be used to heighten awareness again. Occasionally, a flood warning and evacuation is activated but the ensuing flood is not as serious as predicted. These situations may undermine the credibility of awareness campaigns.
Considerations for a successful flood risk awareness campaign
For the success of any risk assessment program it is essential to reach every corner of the society and the people who are at risk. An awareness campaign is an instrument which helps in reaching the groups who are not easily reachable. It brings a total awareness in the society and helps in building risk resistance among community.
City managers are responsible for understanding the needs of every part of the urban society and making people aware of both the potential disasters and their associated risks. Such awareness can be made achieved by promoting awareness campaigns. Generally, the focus of such a campaign differs from one area to another, based on the needs of the local people. It is important for any awareness campaign to try and engage local communities so that maximum benefit can be obtained for the people at risk.