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date: 29 May 2017

Ontological Insecurity and Flood Risk

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Natural Hazard Science. Please check back later for the full article.

People not only want to be safe from natural hazards; they also want to feel that they are safe. Sometimes, these two desires pull in different directions. When they do, this slows the journey to greater resilience.

We all want to feel safe, especially in our own homes. In fact, even though home is not always a place of actual safety, in many cultures it is nonetheless idealized as a place of security and repose. This feeling of having a safe home is one part of ontological security: freedom from existential doubts and the ability to believe that life will continue in much the same way as it always has, without threat to familiar assumptions about time, space, identity, and wellbeing. Floods, earthquakes, and similar events disrupt ontological security. They destroy the possessions that support our sense of who we are; they fracture the social structures that provide us with everyday needs, such as friendship, play, and affection; they disrupt the routines that give our lives a sense of predictability, and they challenge the myth of our immortality. Such events therefore not only cause physical injury and loss; by damaging ontological security, they also jeopardize long-term mental health.

However, ontological security is undermined not only by the occurrence of hazard events but also by their anticipation, and this affects willingness to take steps that would reduce vulnerability to the hazard. If a person is confident that they can totally eliminate their exposure to a hazard, they will usually do so. More commonly, however, the available options come with uncertainty and social/psychological risks: often, the available options only reduce vulnerability, and people doubt their effectiveness or doubt their ability to choose appropriate measures or to implement them. In these circumstances, the risk to ontological security can sometimes outweigh the potential benefits. For example, installing a flood gate in a business premises might reduce the damage of the next flood, but it might not; by installing one, the business owner will be admitting that her business, and hence her income, are not essentially secure. Similarly, bolting furniture to the walls of a home might reduce injuries in the next earthquake, but the householder might anticipate that it will continually remind her of the danger and destroy her sense that home is a safe place.

People’s anticipation of impacts on ontological security has several implications for efforts to promote preparedness. For example, it suggests that warnings will be counterproductive if they are not accompanied by suggestions of easy, reliable ways of eliminating risk. It also suggests that adaptation measures should be designed to minimize the impression that they will enhance awareness of the hazard.