Opening the floodgates? Volunteers’ contribution to flood resilience

Bianca Ambrose-Oji works as social scientist at the Social and Economic Research Group, Forest Research. Bianca, and her co-authors Liz O’Brien, Jake Morris and David Edwards, won the Campbell Adamson Memorial Prize for the best research paper for ‘Civil society and flood resilience’ at the Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference last month.

One of the more powerful images in February 2014 was that of a Sikh man helping with the distribution of sand bags and food supplies in a flooding “disaster area”, not somewhere in Asia, but on our own doorstep in Somerset. As the frequency and scale of flooding events seems to be increasing, voluntary and community-based action may have something to offer in response.

The climate future is uncertain, but the contribution of volunteers and communities is likely to grow and play an ever more critical role in preparing for, and responding to, flood risk. There are still some very important considerations around managing the risk to individual volunteers and any potential disbenefits to their health and wellbeing.

Helping to manage risk

Volunteering for flood risk management, working before flooding events to lower the risk to lives and property, is a concept that has been supported by state organisations like the Environment Agency for some time. Volunteer roles such as flood wardens are long established providing help within communities to prepare and monitor for signs of local flooding.

Our (Forest Research) recent study into flood volunteering for the Environment Agency revealed significant numbers of volunteers and community groups across the country involving themselves in flood risk management in different ways. As well as the state-supported flood wardens, community-based action includes groups of flood volunteers working hard over the long term to build community resilience to flooding by managing and maintaining water courses and infrastructure, developing community emergency plans, monitoring water levels, organising land owners in local catchments, and providing care to vulnerable members of the community. In other localities communities were shown to come together to raise money and implement particular infrastructure development projects aimed at safeguarding their communities from future flood risk. We also found some novel arrangements involving social enterprises such as the River Stewardship Company and other civil society organisations. Their management of habitat volunteers, aimed at connecting with volunteer interests in wildlife, makes a significant contribution to maintaining watercourses in good condition, helping with flood risk.

Why do flood volunteers give their time and energy?

We found that there were obvious reasons – 40% of volunteers surveyed said it was to prevent flooding in their communities – but other motivations included building social networks within communities, finding an individual sense of purpose, or being able to use professional skills.

There were many positive benefits of their activities that volunteers mentioned, including: increasing their understanding of roles and responsibilities of stakeholders involved in flood management and response; improving connection with their local environment; improving community and individual wellbeing.

Groups such as the Bodenham Flood Protection Group and the Par and St Blazey Community Flood Group demonstrate just what can be achieved when communities come together and find ways that state and other organisations can support them in their efforts to protect their villages, towns and neighbourhoods.

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