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Floods, memories and resilience

What can we learn from studying people's flood memories? And how do these memories relate to resilience?

A while ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a workshop at Northumbria University, UK, dedicated to “Concepts and Practices of Flood Management in the UK; Vietnam and the Global South”. Organised by political scientist Oliver Hensengerth, and sponsored by the British Academy’s Newton Fund, it brought together a number of people who spoke about different approaches to living with floods from different places in the world, particularly Vietnam and the UK. The juxtaposition of experiences from these two rather different places was in itself interesting, as were a lot of the other things we heard and discussed, including the additional challenges to water management that come with successful flood control in the Mekong Delta (as people get used to dry land, and as sedimentation decreases with controlled irrigation), or the ideas about knowledge and community that guide the flood risk management policy of the UK Environment Agency. 

Oliver had invited me because of my previous work in an ESRC UK funded project on “Sustainable Flood Memories”. This gave me a wonderful opportunity to reflect on what our own assumptions about floods and people had been in the project, and what I learned while collecting and analysing the empirical material for the project. What follows is based on the notes for my presentation at the workshop. The take-home message is that memories of floods matter, but not necessarily as straightforward drivers of adaptation or resilience. Rather, flood memories point to the politics and dynamisms involved in flood risk and flood experience, and they provide crucial means of making sense of a volatile world. 

Let’s begin with some background on the research project: “Sustainable flood memories and the development of community resilience to future flood risk: a comparative study of three recently flooded communities” ran from 2011 to 2013 and explored the ways flooding is remembered and forgotten on the lower River Severn in Gloucestershire. This area is known for frequent flooding, as well as some exceptional floods, for instance in 1947 and 2007. The project aimed to develop the concept of sustainable flood memories as both an analytic term and a model to strengthen community flood resilience. As analytic, the concept was to subsume the manifold ways in which flooding is remembered and flood memories are passed on within and between communities. Such memories – in the form of stories, flood markers, images, video clips and ‘local knowledge’ – would include not only information about possible flood extent and potential disruptions, but also about ways of dealing with floods, including how to move about, protect vulnerable people, safeguard livestock, minimise damage on property and keep supplied in food and drink. Accordingly, sustainable flood memories would also serve as flood resilience model through documenting and propagating ways of remembering and passing on existing flood knowledges and ways of coping with floods.

As we soon found out, however, ways of remembering and coping with floods in the communities we worked with were rather different than we had imagined. In fact, the very idea of community that had informed the project design turned out to be a gross simplification. People who lived in proximity and in what on the map looked like contiguous places did quite often not feel any sense of community at all with their neighbours and fellow inhabitants of a particular village or part of town. Of course, the people we spoke with did feel part of various communities – residential, kin-based, religious, sports related, work-wise, or indeed through flood resilience groups – but these were not necessarily congruous with the administrative units that we had identified on the map. Also, it became clear that community not only has a spatial extent, but is also thoroughly temporal: many people remembered that during and after the last severe floods, there had been a strong sense of community, both in terms of a feeling of belonging and concrete activities of helping each other and running joint activities. Neighbours who had never spoken to each other got into contact, and long-established animosities were forgotten when the water rose and disrupted normal life. Soon after the flood had receded, however, the sense of community was waning, too, in many instances. Some initiatives have since tried to keep up some aspects of these communities, but by the time we conducted interviews in 2011 and 2012, four to five years after the previous large flood in the area, these groups seemed to be mere shadows of their former selves.

While we had to therefore thoroughly rethink our idea of community, we also noted that people’s memory practices did not necessarily match with the project design’s expectations. Remembering, as any memory studies scholar knows, is not so much about representing historic facts, as it is about telling a story in the present. This means that the essence of memory lies in the context of its remembering, the current projects of the person remembering, the particular audience and other factors. When we recorded people’s flood memories, we therefore heard their reflections on past events from their present situation, personally, emotionally, financially, life cycle wise, and of course in relation to an outside interviewer employed at a local research institute. This is not to say that some memories are more pure, or real, and others more tainted, or inflected. It means, on the contrary, that the power of memories emanates exactly from the situatedness of their contents; they are statements in the present and about the present, through recourse to the past. They are not made up, but made anew in each instance of remembering and retelling. In this way, memories are also future-oriented: by incorporating a particular narrative of events and reasoning, they reflect a particular vision of a desirable or even inevitable future, which logically follows from these past events. For these reasons, however, memories are also of rather little use as ‘data’ for learning from the past for a more resilient future. They connect past, present and future in specific, narrative ways, not according to the decontextualised logic of models and knowledge transfers. 

Moreover, when people recount their memories of past floods, then not only the context of this recounting today is different from that of the past, but also the landscape has changed in which the flooding and the opportunities and challenges for flood resilience unfold. For instance, let us assume that a floodplain resident remembers that major floods never reached a particular road, which was therefore suitable as an escape or emergency traffic corridor. The world, however, has not been standing still since the last major flood, and an infrastructural project in the catchment, like a dam, improved drainage facilities, flood defences or raised highway embankments, can change the water distribution so that this road will be under water in the next major flood. Also, while the extent of the flood waters may be similar, the damage this water causes might vary a lot in different times. The example we heard about a lot juxtaposed the two extreme floods of 1947 and 2007. While the water levels were almost the same in both cases, the latter floods caused a lot more disruptions and loss because work habits, food supply infrastructure, legal frameworks and people’s very homes had radically changed in the 60 years in between. In 1947, the floods entered many homes and other buildings, inundated roads, soaked supplies of coal intended for heating, and confined people to the first floors of their houses. When the flood receded, people had to rebuild some roads, clean their homes from the mud that had sedimented into everything that the water had touched, and – above all – air out all affected buildings for an extended time to allow the walls and wooden floors to dry. In 2007, the floods also reached some roads and many buildings, but their effect was completely different: on the highways, it caused unprecedented queues that made people abandon their cars and walk home instead; flooding a centralised water works, it shut down drinking water supplies for two weeks; and reaching people’s homes it destroyed all electronics that abound in today’s kitchens, living rooms and home offices, but were virtually absent in 1947; also while furniture from solid wood can be dried after a flood, the currently ubiquitous pressboard furniture disintegrates when wet; finally, the fact that some of the waters had moved through industrial estates or petrol stations before entering people’s homes, coupled with strict health regulations, meant that in 2007 a lot of flooded objects counted as ‘contaminated’ and were condemned, so that people had to throw away many things dear to their hearts that could have easily been re-used under different circumstances. The point in all these stories is not only that are memories situated in the context of remembering, but also that the world they refer to is changing, so that one story of dealing with flooding in one particular social and historical context may not be directly applicable in a different context. 

In addition to this situated specificity of memories and the scope for their application in resilience building, we found out that in many cases, remembering did not seem to be a local priority at all. In some contexts, this was mostly because people simply returned to their everyday business after the flood, and because there were no explicit rituals, traditions, or places that would have fostered flood memories. Quite a number of people we spoke with, however, made it clear that they were not only not interested in remembering the floods, but they were actually keen on actively forgetting them. The memories they had were stories of loss of cherished personal belongings; of frustration in a futile struggle against both the waters and the authorities that they held responsible for either the flooding or the sluggish recovery process; of distress in the face of repeated rains without improved flood risk management infrastructure; and of the pain of feeling abandoned and vulnerable. Some of these people emphasised that they had made a conscious decision to look forward rather than back to the past, and that cultivating flood memories would only bring up traumata that had barely healed since the last flood.

So – if community is a highly complex concept rather than a more or less clearly identifiable group of people; if remembering is as much about the present and future as it is about the past; if the context of memories changes along with the memories themselves; and if many of our respondents were engaged in active forgetting rather than in keeping flood memories alive – if, in short, communal memories and community remembering are everything but easy building blocks for flood resilience programmes; is there any use for the concept of ‘sustainable flood memories’ in either analytical or applied terms? I do think so. It wouldn’t be in the sense of harvesting flood memories in apparently flood-resilient communities, distilling the flood facts and tricks of the trade from them, and re-applying those in other communities to boost their technical know-how of dealing with floods in an era where governments claim they are no longer responsible. Instead, flood memories can have an important role in the social and political processes that characterise life with flood risk more generally. For example, memories of floods are often memories of community, of working together and helping each other. They are stories of resilience not in the technical sense, but in the sense of making ends meet, coping and learning in a world where people are left to their own devices. The state often figures as an adversary in these narratives, an agency that makes and breaks promises and defects on its responsibilities, or one that has to be enrolled in local projects through cunning and strategizing. Cherished flood memories also feature stories of spirited coping with what otherwise would seem like unbearable threats; of humour in the face of loss; of creative innovations and unexpected links that were fostered in the extreme situation; and of the little victories that people managed to win in the context of a grave defeat. In short, flood memories frequently bear witness to the fact that people have gone through traumatic experiences but have come out of them, sometimes even stronger than before. They spread the word that ordinary people have agency to do something about their own lives, even if these are minor things; and they cast these people not primarily as victims, but as survivors, i.e. something to be proud of rather than ashamed. This bias towards the optimist and uplifting aspects of flood memories is, of course, shaped also by the selectivity of remembering and goes hand in hand with the active forgetting of the more disheartening experiences of flooding. 

In sum, flood memories contribute to the shaping of places, selves and communities, and should be seen in this light for both their analytical contribution and their practical application. They can definitely contribute to flood resilience building, but not in the sense of providing the spare parts for fixing unresilient communities. Rather they speak of the possibility of resilience in a simple, everyday sense. This is usually not a glorious phoenix rising from the rubble and mud of a flooding aftermath, but perhaps more like the inconspicuous lodgepole pine, the seeds of which are released only after intense heat, such as during forest fires, and which can therefore thrive after destructive fires. 

Thinking of flood resilience in this way also underlines the importance of approaching flooding and flood risk management holistically, as a field of real people living in real environments, both of which are subject to ongoing, and mutually influential, changes. This goes against the grain of the established practice, for instance in flood risk management, of first formulating policies and plans and then working towards their effective implementation. Flood memories tell us that people are always already engaged in particular activities involved in living with floods, that these activities sometimes have considerable histories, and that they are extremely specific to their social and hydrological setting. Planning and implementation are therefore one and the same process, of finding a viable way through challenges and opportunities that arise in real time and in real, and evolving, places.  A flood risk management strategy that does not take these specific memories and lineages of activity into account is bound to run into difficulties, for instance by being rejected by the people who are meant to be benefiting from it. 

In addition, the fact that many of the flood memories we collected featured government agencies should make British authorities listen up, not in the sense of smoothing the transition towards further state retreat and neoliberalisation of government services, but in order to better understand their constituencies’ concerns. A recurrent theme in many interviews and other sources was the contrast between aloof, ignorant and indifferent senior personnel, for instance in the Environment Agency, on the one hand, and what people called ‘the bobby on the beat’, i.e. present and engaged police or firefighters, on the other. I would think that these are not necessarily simply statements about incapable or unfriendly Environment Agency staff, but point to a more fundamental tension of what people at flood risk expect from the state and the wider community, and how often their expectations are frustrated. In a situation where they feel defenceless against rising waters and uncooperative insurance companies, people look to the state as the legitimate and powerful instance to support them in their everyday struggles, not in the form of anonymous helplines or bogus hearings that don’t seem to lead anywhere, but in terms of accessible, concerned and resourceful agency. 

One of the key insights I learned during the Sustainable Flood Memories project is that floods are never just about water levels. What makes high water into an emergency or even a disaster is the particular ways that political and material arrangements channel both where the water goes and who is most vulnerable. That the material and the political are not just closely related on the floodplains, but that they are very often two sides of the same coin is epitomised in the slogan that I came across repeatedly and which stated ‘One man’s flood defence is another man’s flood!’ This rendition of the popular cliché ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ juxtaposes flood defences and terrorism, political oppression and flooding, and thereby illustrates how people at flood risk experience high water as a simultaneously hydrological and political threat. 

Human geographers and anthropologists have come to understand this mutual implication of the social and political with the material and hydrological in terms of what has been called ‘hydrosocial’ relations, links that are at once about water flows and social bonds. I find this concept very useful for approaching the predicaments of people living with flood risk – as well as with other volatile dynamics related to water, like drought or erosion – since it provides a more holistic perspective than conventional frameworks. 

This is also true for the DELTA project, where we explore how human activities and hydrological flows belong to a unified field of relations, in which human lives and livelihoods, water uses and water quality, risks and risk management strategies, and many other facets of delta life come into being. This field of relations can take a myriad of forms, but these forms are likely to embody people’s creative responses to an environment where change is the standard and solidity the exception. People’s skills of – and, perhaps, frustrations with – navigating unruly and volatile situations of changing government policies, prices and hydrological regimes may provide critical insights into the possibilities for life in what has been called a post-normal world, or the Anthropocene. As with the flood memories from Gloucestershire, I do not anticipate that our findings in the DELTA project will yield the ingredients for resilience packages deemed applicable anywhere; rather, I hope to find and understand ways of thinking and acting – for instance in relation to flood risk – that can help us and our decision makers re-assess their own assumptions of management, hydrology, and life on a volatile planet.