Perceptions and practices of flood risk management: A case study of flood risk governance in High River, Alberta

  • Author / Creator
    Bogdan, Eva Angelyna
  • Flooding is a major problem across Canada, causing more property damage than any other hazard, and is expected to increase in severity due to climate change. Alberta’s 2013 floods—one of the most expensive natural disasters in Canada’s history—revealed the vulnerability of the province to such events. Floods are natural and only become disasters when they damage built structures. Vulnerability to flooding disasters arises from social arrangements—specifically, how we think about (frame) flooding and how that translates into practices about how and where we live. To date, these sociopolitical dimensions have been underexamined in Alberta.
    In this dissertation I identify the ways that individuals and institutions influence (socially construct or produce) vulnerability to flooding risks and damages as a way to better understand and possibly alter these patterns. I provide a rich understanding of the complexities of flood risk governance that create challenges for policymakers and the implementation of policies through practices. I achieve this by analyzing the role of flood risk governance—the ways in which stakeholders make decisions, implement them, and interact with one another—in influencing vulnerability to such disasters. I ask how perceptions of, and practices related to, flooding are shaped by sociopolitical factors. I examine flood risk governance through a case study of High River, the community most severely impacted during the 2013 floods in Alberta. Town leaders plan to continue its growth and development, despite its location in a flood hazard area and long history of flooding. Extreme disasters and subsequent responses of this nature make ideal case studies by providing opportunities to investigate deeper social forces that increase vulnerability to disaster risks and damages but are hidden in everyday affairs.
    In this qualitative case study I gathered data from four main sources: interviews, observations, policy documents, and media articles. I analyzed the data through the threaded situation analysis (TSA) approach that I developed by drawing on the theoretical frameworks of social practice-based approaches and frame/framing analysis. A situation arises when actors, structure/context, and practices come together in an arrangement specific to a time and place.
    The most significant theme from my findings is that the dominant culture of economic development suppresses socioecological flood risk governance, resulting in a lack of regulations to restrict building in flood-prone areas. The push for development also perpetuates the dominance of structural mitigation, such as dams and dikes, at the expense of nonstructural measures, such as social mitigation (e.g., regulation and relocation) and natural mitigation (e.g., Room for the River approach). Economic benefits, as a result, have been concentrated among a small number of stakeholders while the risks and costs of flooding are spread to the rest of society. However, these practices appear economically profitable only if social and environmental costs are externalized and decision-makers are not held responsible. Such contradictions in Alberta’s pro-development and anti-regulation culture combined with the rate of human-induced “natural” disasters contribute to a socially, environmentally, and economically unstable condition that, when triggered by an atmospheric event, can climax into a perfect storm.
    Although the TSA approach moves away from typical practice-based approaches, it provides a way to study practices in addition to other factors that are key for understanding governance, such as actors and their interactions. I contribute to practice-oriented studies by developing and elucidating new practice routes of suppressing and languishing, which provide insight into how some practices became dominant over others and also capture deliberate and wilful attempts by actors to influence practices. Applying the TSA approach may prove valuable in providing a deeper understanding of the nuances, contestation, and varied experiences related to risk management. These insights are necessary to understand the governance challenges for reducing disaster risks and damages.
    This research contributes to scholarship in disaster sociology and environmental sociology that emphasizes the need to understand and, subsequently, intervene in the social production of flooding risks and their continued proliferation. In terms of practical contributions, the study reveals that transformation requires changes in the balance of power in two seemingly disparate yet related areas: among stakeholders who constitute flood risk governance and between humans and nature.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2019
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.