The role of risk perception in influencing flood losses over time

Do you know the idiom “burying the head in the sand”? The phrase refers to the common but mistaken belief that an ostrich hides its head in the sand as soon as it feels threatened. According to this credence, the ostrich perceives to be at risk but does nothing to change its fate. On the other hand, there is the behavior of the beaver that protects its lair building small dikes with logs. It’s a very proactive animal and very much risk averse. These two very different behaviors imply two very different outcomes when the two animals are threatened by an actual risk.

The same applies to human societies that intentionally or unintentionally choose what and how to fear.

In a recent paper, together with my colleagues Giuliano Di Baldassarre and Frederike Albrecht, I have depicted four different ways of perceiving flood risk, which correspond to four different ideal types of society that perceive and thus respond to risk in distinct ways. Unsurprisingly, societies that tend to neglect existing risks, as the ostrich does, or underestimate risks, are in danger of experiencing high flood losses without the capacity to learn from past events, as they do not adopt adequate measures. As the beaver, societies that attempt to control flood risk through the construction of levees will decrease their total flood losses substantially. However, a dense population in the floodplain that feels safe due to the presence of a levee may experience catastrophic consequences if the levee fails.

In contrast, risk monitoring societies stand out in their ability to maintain high flood-risk awareness and a memory of flood events that guide participatory preparedness measures.

Have a look at our new paper on Hydrological Sciences Journal, it’s free-to-view!

Full reference:

Ridolfi E., Albrecht F. & Di Baldassarre G. (2019) Exploring the role of risk perception in influencing flood losses over time, Hydrological Sciences Journal, DOI: 10.1080/02626667.2019.1677907

By Elena Ridolfi

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