Community perspectives of flood risk and social vulnerability reduction : the case of the Red River Basin

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Stewart, Robert M.
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It has been a decade since the 1997 Red River Flood of the Century in Manitoba Canada. Since the event federal, provincial and local efforts have improved emergency management procedures, structural and non-structural flood mitigation, and the public's awareness of response and recovery plans. They have significantly reduced the exposure of the regional population to similar large-scale flood events. However, there has been an institutional failure to address social vulnerability that affects community resilience and the capacity to cope with uncertainty in the floodplain. In these contexts the purpose of this study was to explore community-based risk management approaches to reducing social vulnerability through planning and communication linkages (to raise public awareness and mobilize action), bottom-up activity (experience, involvement, and application) and floodplain management partnerships. The objectives of the study were to: 1) identify residual floodplain issues that affect risk acceptance and partnership development among floodplain stakeholders; 2) explain the processes of social vulnerability that affect community capacity to cope with flood risk in the Red River Basin; 3) assess social vulnerability at the community level; and, 4) develop policy recommendations and community-based plans to reduce social vulnerability. A goal of the research was to develop a new conceptual framework of social vulnerability in the context of flooding and the floodplain environment. Using interviews, surveys and a local decision-makers' forum, the methodological approach contributed to participatory action research by engaging floodplain stakeholders in identifying social vulnerability and developing operational tools for anticipatory risk management. The findings indicate that residents and municipal managers have a good deal of knowledge and experience regarding local risk and hazards in the floodplain and know how to reduce vulnerable conditions at the household and community levels. It is the external pressures from regional floodplain policy and development that restricts local action and empowerment, and reduces the public's tolerance for risk management initiatives and partnership development. Significant variations in residents' perceptions of risk and what makes them vulnerable in the floodplain have developed between urban and rural communities, between geographical locations in the rural setting (i.e. private farm and river lots and rural communities), and among different socio-economic groups (i.e. age, income and employment characterisitics). Policy recommendations highlight the need for local-level information generation and communication processes to identify and assess vulnerable pathways to a range of ongoing risks. Local action can first be initiated through regular community involvement in water resource conservation initiatives and sustainable planning opportunities that strengthen social networks and enhance rural representation in regional floodplain management and decision-making. Provincial policy is needed to develop broad standards for the social dimensions of vulnerability in the floodplain, and to provide opportunities to mediate existing management conflicts that hinder partnership development and action between communities and provincial agencies.