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date: 26 May 2017

Societal Impacts of Flood Hazards

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.

Floods remain the most devastating natural hazard globally, despite substantial investments in flood prevention and management in recent decades. Fluvial floods, such as the ones in Pakistan in 2010, and Thailand in 2011, can affect entire countries and cause severe economic and human losses. Also, coastal floods can inflict substantial harm due to their destructive forces in terms of wave and tidal energy. A flood-type that has received growing attention recently is flooding from pluvial events. Even though these events are locally confined, their sudden onset and unpredictability poses a danger to areas that are generally not at risk from flooding. In the future, flood risk is projected to further increase in many regions due to the effects of global warming on the hydrological cycle and the ongoing concentration of people and economic assets in risk prone areas.

Floods have a large variety of societal impacts that span across space and time. While some of these impacts are obvious and have been well researched, others are subtler, and much less is known about their complex processes and long-term effects. The most immediate and apparent impact of floods is direct damage caused by physical contact between flood waters and economic assets, cultural heritage, or human beings, with the latter possibly resulting in injuries and deaths. Direct flood damage can amount to billions of Euros for single events like the floods in the Danube and Elbe catchment in Central Europe in 2002 and 2013. More indirect economic implications are losses that occur outside, in space and time, of the flood-affected area, such as losses due to a disruption of business processes. The flood in Thailand in 2011, for instance, resulted in the shutdown of car manufacturing within and outside the flood zone due to a lack of parts supply.

Floods also have long-term indirect impacts on those affected. The experience of suffering damage and losing important personal belongings can negatively impact the psychological health of flood victims. Much less is known about this type of effect: How long do these effects last? What makes some people or communities recover faster than others from financial losses and emotional stress? Moreover, flood impacts are not equally distributed across different groups of society. Often, poor, elderly, and marginalized groups of society are particularly vulnerable to the effects of flooding, since they have fewer social, human, and financial coping capacities. Also women often bear a disproportionately high burden in many countries due to their social position.

Finally, severe floods are often so-called “windows of opportunity” enabling rapid policy change. The newly adopted policy arrangements can lead to societal conflicts around issues of interests, equity, and fairness. For instance, flood events often trigger large-scale investment in flood defence infrastructure, which are associated with high construction costs. While these costs are usually borne by the taxpayer, their benefits are shared by a small proportion of the society. In addition, societal conflict can arise around questions of where-to-build measures, what impacts these have on the ground regarding economic development potentials, different kinds of uses and nature protections, as well as what effects are expected downstream. In these controversies, issues of participation and decision making are central and often highly contested. At the same time, floods can have positive social impacts by triggering a high degree of solidarity within the population.