Many communities in the UK are threatened by flood risk, but some people are more disadvantaged than others.

The effects of flooding on individuals are wide ranging and include:

  • power shortages
  • disruptions to livelihood
  • impacts on physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Flood effects also vary with the severity of flooding, and current investment in flood-risk strategies and defences is driven by physical exposure to flood risk.

But this misses a key consideration.

The social vulnerability of individuals and communities at risk determines their capacity to respond to the consequences of flooding.

Personal, social or economic circumstances significantly affect people’s vulnerability. Those most at risk include children, the elderly, ill and homeless.

For example, those with less economic security may not have insurance to cover flood damage costs, elderly individuals may be at higher risk of becoming ill after floods, and cultural differences in communities may lead to misunderstandings over flood warnings.

Flood disadvantage = Exposure to climate hazard + social vulnerability

Social vulnerability is influenced by a range of factors including:

  • sensitivity (personal factors like age)
  • adaptive capacity (ability to prepare, respond and recover, which is affected by income, mobility, access to information and insurance)
  • environment (for instance housing and location).

Areas with significant exposure to flood risk and a large number of individuals with social vulnerability are areas at most flood disadvantage. Flooding in these areas may lead to greater losses than elsewhere.

Social vulnerability needs to be taken into consideration in government funding, allocation and investment in response to flood risk.

And flood risk is increasing

The number of people exposed to flood risk in the UK is increasing due to environmental, social and policy changes.

Climate change is a driver of more frequent flooding, with higher river flows, more extreme weather and rising sea levels.

Population growth compounds this risk, with increasing housing demands putting pressure on councils to build houses in flood-risk areas.

An ageing population means more vulnerable people at risk, with greater challenges for coping and recovery after flood events.

Flood insurance in the UK is currently arranged so that premiums are higher for those living in areas at higher risk of flooding. This bias doesn’t account for individuals’ varying levels of income and poverty, and ability to cover the cost of insurance.

Poverty increases individual and community vulnerability to the impacts of floods. As flood risk increases, so too does flood disadvantage.

Is the government doing enough?

The government’s investment programme to minimise exposure to flood risk in England does not fully consider flood disadvantage.

The government does allocate 2.25 times more funding to those in the 20% most deprived areas than in the 60% least deprived areas (Targeting flood investment and policy to minimise flood disadvantage. Kit England and Katherine Knox, June 2016). However, this allocation does not mean the money is being spent directly on reducing flood risk.

Funding to local flood authorities is not ring-fenced. In 2012, over a third of local flood authorities reported that some of their funding was diverted from flood risk management.

Funding takes into consideration long-term investment using a cost-benefit approach, but does not address urban bias due to larger populations or the varying costs of flooding on communities and individuals.

The Netherlands is leading the way

A legal flood protection standard has been introduced in the Netherlands, which addresses economic capacity and social protection alongside cost benefit. This specifies a minimum safety level for everyone at risk of flooding.

The last word

The government needs to review their approach to flood investment to ensure that social vulnerability and deprivation are adequately addressed.

  • Social vulnerability should be considered in local flood-risk management strategies in guidance and development plans.
  • A minimum standard of protection for all should be considered.
  • Funding policy should ensure that allocated funding is spent on flood risk management.
  • Plans for new developments should include better understanding of the different people affected and their varying capacity to review planning applications.
  • The increased risks associated with climate change should be factored in.
  • Investment to increase flood resilience should take better account of the social context and equity issues.