Risk perception, community behaviour and social resilience

(Task 11 of Integrated project FLOODsite − Integrated Flood Risk Analysis and Management Methodologies)


Department of Urban and Environmental Sociology


EU (6th FP)


03/2004 − 02/2009




Time and again, disastrous floods threaten regions and the people living there, their belongings and the basis of their existence. Flood risks, its causes and consequences regained public consciousness not least by the recent disastrous floods in the European basins of Oder, Morava, Tisza, Elbe and others. As far as new approaches of flood risk management – instead of mere technical flood defence – focus on flood hazard mitigation and prevention as well as on a sustainable, participative development of floodplains, it is indispensable to integrate the subjective world-views of the people living in flood-prone areas, their risk perceptions, information and prevention behaviour.

Therefore, the FLOODsite project – the largest flood-related research project in the 6th framework programme of the EU – brought together stakeholders, managers and researchers from a range of political and research organisations. It covered the physical, environmental, ecological and socio-economic dimensions of floods. The socio-economic sub-theme on vulnerability was coordinated by the Division of Social Sciences of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ.

The analysis of risk perceptions and constructions as well as coping behaviour and resilience strategies at the local level was part of this work. In particular, the interdependencies between subjective risk perception and individual preparedness on the one hand, and the role of different social networks during and after a flood, on the other, were investigated. A cross-national comparison between Germany (Mulde river), Italy (Adige/Sarca and Tagliamento rivers) and the United Kingdom (Thames river) provided knowledge about appropriate, accepted and possible mitigation measures from a bottom-up perspective which was mirrored with the perspective of decision-makers. The methodology included interviews with decision-makers and flood-related organisations, focus groups as well as standardised questionnaire surveys and in-depth interviews with people affected by recent floods, hence both qualitative and quantitative approaches. The investigations of the UFZ were concentrated in the river basin of the Vereinigte Mulde, a tributary of the Elbe where a major flood occurred in August 2002. A mixed methodological approach integrating both quantitative and qualitative methods is applied. In December 2005, a standardised questionnaire-survey was carried out in the municipality of Eilenburg and the communities of Erlln and Sermuth (N=400). It covered topics like risk perception, impacts of the 2002 flood, the role of social networks during and after the event, lessons learned as well as the evaluation of private and public flood protection measures (N=400). Furthermore, semi-structured interviews with experts as well as narrative in-depth interviews with people affected by recent floods are carried out in several phases of the project.

The empirical research revealed a considerable cleavage between the scientific understanding of flood risk and its management on the one hand, and the risk constructions of the population, which influence their actions and behaviours, on the other hand. While decision-makers and a number of researchers assume that the public needs and also wants to be involved in risk management (e.g. by applying preparatory measures, participating in awareness campaigns or consulting flood risk maps), large parts of the public are not aware of this demand and regard the allocation of responsibility rather differently. The majority of residents neither feel involved nor expect to be involved in decision-making processes concerning flood risk: Flood protection is a public duty, this is the dominant view, and not a private one. We therefore regard the ambitious new paradigm of flood risk management as both a great challenge and a long-term task for practitioners, policy-makers and researchers since all of them will increasingly be required to talk to and with the people at risk and to listen to them if the actual outcome is to include them in decision-making processes and overall risk governance. Based on our empirical results, recommendations for flood risk management with the people at risk were formulated – thus translating some of our main findings about risk awareness, actual behaviour and social vulnerability into the language of those in charge of flood risk management in order to come to a true dialogue and improved preparedness.

In this project, we closely cooperated with:

Flood Hazard Research Centre (FHRC), Middlesex University, London, United Kingdom

Programma Emergenze di Massa (PEM), Istituto di Sociologia Internazionale di Gorizia (ISIG), Gorizia, Italy


Steinführer, Annett; Kuhlicke, Christian; De Marchi, Bruna; Scolobig, Anna; Tapsell, Sue; Tunstall, Sylvia (2009): Local Communities at Risk from Flooding: Social Vulnerability, Resilience and Recommendations for Flood Risk Management in Europe. Leipzig: Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ, 88 pp.
Task11_Broschuere_7-09 (11.3 MB)
You can also order this booklet from Annett Steinführer or Christian Kuhlicke.

Kuhlicke C, Steinführer A, De Marchi B, Scolobig A (accepted), Risk Management, Participation and Public Perceptions. In: Jochen Schanze et al. (ed.): Understanding Natural Disasters – Contribution to Risk in Europe. EU-Medin, Springer, Berlin, ca. 10 pp.

Steinführer A, Kuhlicke C, De Marchi B, Scolobig A, Tapsell S, Tunstall S (2008). Towards flood risk management with the people at risk: from scientific analysis to practice recommendations (and back). In: Samuels P, Huntington S, Allsop W, Harrop J (Eds.). Flood Risk Management: Research and Practice. CD-Rom. Leiden: CRC Press/Balkema, 945-955.

Kuhlicke C, Steinführer A (2007), Wider die Fixiertheit im Denken – Risikodialoge über Naturgefahren. Reaktion auf B. Merz, R. Emmermann (2006), Zum Umgang mit Naturgefahren in Deutschland: Vom Reagieren zum Risikomanagement, GAIA, 16/2, 91-92.

Kuhlicke C, Steinführer A (2006), Wie vorbereitet ist die Bevölkerung auf ein Hochwasserrisikomanagement? Lehren aus dem Hochwasser 2002. In: Jüpner R (Ed.), Beiträge zur Konferenz „Strategien und Instrumente zur Verbesserung des vorbeugenden Hochwasserschutzes“. Schriftenreihe des Instituts für Wasserwirtschaft und Ökotechnologie (IWO) der Hochschule Magdeburg – Stendal Vol. 6, Shaker, Aachen, 45-53.