press release, 17. April 2023

Natural flood prevention: higher trust through better communication

A UFZ study shows: If the population feels well informed, it has a more positive view towards nature-based flood prevention

In many places today, dikes are being moved back, and floodplains are being revitalised in order to give the river more space during times of flooding. This should make flood protection more effective and reduce the risk of flooding in inhabited areas. Nevertheless, natural flood prevention projects are often met with considerable resistance from the general population. Why is that? Researchers from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) and the University of Potsdam have investigated this question in a social science study. They found that fear, personal experience of flooding, and a lack of information play a particular role in this. According to the research team, when flood protection measures are planned, the general population should be involved and informed as early as possible. The study was recently published in Risk Analysis.

2013 flood on the Elbe near Dessau-Rosslau. Photo: André Künzelmann / UFZ
2013 flood on the Elbe near Dessau-Rosslau.
Photo: André Künzelmann / UFZ
Why are natural flood prevention projects often met with resistance from the general population? For this purpose, researchers from the UFZ interviewed people who are directly affected by the issues of flooding and taking protective measures because of their proximity to the Elbe. Photo: UFZ; Map: OpenStreetMap
Why are natural flood prevention projects often met with resistance from the general population? For this purpose, researchers from the UFZ interviewed people who are directly affected by the issues of flooding and taking protective measures because of their proximity to the Elbe.
Photo: UFZ; Map: OpenStreetMap

There have been repeated flood disasters in Germany in recent decades. For example, in 2002 and 2013 along the Elbe and in 2021 in the Eifel region. As climate change progresses, severe floods are expected to occur more frequently. It is therefore important to quickly implement effective protection measures in vulnerable areas. 

In the past, flood protection consisted mainly of technical solutions such as building dikes close to the river or constructing water retention basins. However, this is often no longer sufficient in order to be able to provide effective protection against flooding. Nature-based solutions such as dike relocation and floodplain renaturation are thus increasingly coming into focus in Germany and across Europe. "The aim of such projects is to give the river more space so that it can spread out during flooding and the renaturalised floodplains can fully develop their water-absorbing effect", says Prof. Christian Kuhlicke, head of the UFZ Department of Urban and Environmental Sociology. "Natural flood prevention serves different purposes: It sustainably reduces the risk of flooding, restores the original state of the river landscape, increases biodiversity, and enhances the quality of life in the region". 

However, the local population is often sceptical or critical of natural flood protection measures. For example, there are fears that they might not be as effective as conventional technical flood protection. The interventions in the landscape appear drastic, and there is uncertainty as to whether the landscape will change for the better. The sudden proximity to the widening river can also seem threatening. "The relocated dike means that the water may get much closer to people’s home during high water levels. The fact that the river is now more visible can be frightening, especially for those who have often been affected by floods. However, these new measures can actually make things safer than before", says Kuhlicke. 

In their study, the UFZ team wanted to find out how people living near dike relocation areas perceive the natural flood protection measures and how well informed they feel. The research team interviewed 304 people from five towns and cities in Saxony-Anhalt on the Elbe (Lödderitz, Kühren, Aken, Rosslau, Vockerode), where measures for dike relocation or floodplain renaturation were carried out. The researchers developed a questionnaire based on a new social science research model (PRAM model), which facilitates the comparability of the surveys. The questionnaire comprised 18 questions to which the participants were asked to indicate their level of agreement on a scale of 1 to 7. For example: What is your attitude towards the dike relocation project? How powerless did you feel during this flood? I can completely rely on the public flood protection in my community. How likely do you think it is that a severe flood will occur in your community within the next five years? 

"Our results show that both people who feel particularly connected to their home town and those who feel strongly threatened by flooding are more likely to oppose the measures. This was especially the case if these people had previously experienced a flood. In contrast, study participants who felt well informed and trusted local risk management were more likely to support nature-based measures", explains Dr Sungju Han, a staff member at the UFZ Department of Urban and Environmental Sociology, former PhD student at the University of Potsdam, and lead author of the study. 

But what do the results mean for the planning of future flood protection projects? "The fears and concerns of the population should definitely be taken seriously. Better information and communication - ideally at the onset of the planning phase - can allay many fears", says Kuhlicke, who is the last author. "It is particularly important to make it clear that natural flood prevention is primarily about effectively protecting the population from the effects of major floods. And that is through allowing more space for the river. All other effects - the more natural river landscape or the increase in biodiversity - are positive side effects but not the primary goal. "If the population is not involved, there is often great resistance to flood protection projects. This is usually accompanied by considerable loss of time. And that can be dangerous - because you never know when the next flood will come", says Han.

In addition to the study in Saxony-Anhalt, the UFZ team is conducting several other survey studies on this topic in different areas of Europe. They are part of the EU project RECONECT funded by Horizon 2020, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. As part of the RECONECT project, the UFZ aims to identify obstacles to the realisation of natural flood prevention. This is based on research in eight European countries. Han’s dissertation was supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).  

Sungju Han, Philip Bubeck, Annegret Thieken, Christian Kuhlicke, Risk Analysis (2023): A place-based risk appraisal model for exploring residents’ attitudes toward nature-based solutions to flood risks, DOI: 10.1111/risa.14118,


Further information

Prof. Dr. Christian Kuhlicke
Head of the UFZ Department of Urban and Environmental Sociology

UFZ press office

Susanne Hufe
Phone: +49 341 235-1630

In the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), scientists conduct research into the causes and consequences of far-reaching environmental changes. Their areas of study cover water resources, ecosystems of the future, environmental technologies and biotechnologies, the effects of chemicals in the environment, modelling and social-scientific issues. The UFZ employs more than 1,100 staff at its sites in Leipzig, Halle and Magdeburg. It is funded by the Federal Government, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt.

The Helmholtz Association contributes to solving major challenges facing society, science and the economy with top scientific achievements in six research fields: Energy; Earth and Environment; Health; Key Technologies; Matter; and Aeronautics, Space and Transport. With some 39,000 employees in 19 research centres, the Helmholtz Association is Germany’s largest scientific organisation.
« back