James Hutton Institute1
Introduction: It is widely agree that there is a need to move away from relying on 'hard' engineering solutions in order to manage the risk of adverse impacts from flooding events. Instead, 'Natural Flood Management' (NFM) has been encouraged as a more sustainable approach to flood management. NFM can include activities such as re-meandering or planting buffer strips. In Europe this concept is enshrined the recent Floods Directive, which shapes the policy agenda and priorities for flood management in all EU member countries. NFM is also recognised as a means mitigating climate change. Although the idea of implementing NFM and restoring natural hydrological functions is increasingly popular, it is not yet widely implemented. There is already some understanding of the barriers faced by land-managers (often ultimately responsible for taking or permitting measures), but less is known about the barriers perceived by the many other actors who might be involved (such as government agencies or Local Authorities). It is important to better understand these, to know if and how NFM might be more widely promoted. Thus, the objective of the study reported here was to explore the barriers to implementing Natural Flood Management, focusing on the case of Scotland. Methods: We used a qualitative approach to identify how NFM was understood and experienced by the multiple actors and institutions that might be expected to have some role or influence on the practice of natural flood management. Interviewees included statutory agencies concerned with environmental management and protection, public, private and third-sector organisations concerned with water use and catchment management. Our research was guided by the literature on multi-level governance, which has identified likely challenges from other natural-resource management challenges, but our analysis as far as possible allowed for the identification of new themes and issues that we had not previously considered. Results: Most readers with experience of NFM will probably not be surprised to hear that shortage of funding for implementing new measures was widely seen as a key impediment. However, we also found a variety of other barriers to NFM, many of which were rather less tangible and perhaps less expected. Firstly, we found that some challenges to implementing NFM arise from gaps in the evidence base relating to NFM measures. For example, there is little certainly as to the effect on peak flow associated with a remeandering project, compared the effect associated with installing a concrete wall of certain dimensions. Uncertainty was often cited as a reason for not considering NFM measures, or not being able to persuade others to consider them. However, these challenges were exacerbated by the less tangible issue of a misfit with existing expertise: many of those tasked with managing flood risk have an engineering background and prior experience only of hard engineering measures. Therefore dealing with NFM took many beyond their 'comfort zone'. Thus a legacy of previous ways of researching hydrology and understanding interventions could hinder consideration of new NFM measures. Secondly, and related to this, we found challenges arose from the new ways of partnership working that are typically entailed by NFM. NFM often requires the coordination and collaboration between multiple actors to plan and install measures that would make a significant contribution to managing flood risk. However, past approaches to flood management generally required less collaboration, often being single actions or installations that an agency could deliver itself, or in collaboration with one land-holder. Thus, ways of working did not always provide space for building new partnerships required to share knowledge and collaborate, and the individuals involved did not always feel supported and skilled to do so. Lastly, we found that some aspects of current legislation and policies hinder adoption of NFM measures, and reinforce the above challenges, even sometimes those same policies that ostensibly advocate NFM. We should note that NFM encompasses a family of different options or measures, but perhaps surprisingly, we did not find the challenges varied greatly by the type of measure considered. This is possibly an indication of the scope of difficulties noted above, that are dwarfing any problems associated with specific to certain types of measures. Conclusions: The key message from this study is that implementing a radical shift in the way we approach and conceptualise flood management will almost inevitably encounter multiple practical, institutional and cognitive barriers. These kinds of challenges resonate with the wider literature on multi-level governance. Natural Flood Management seems to typify the new 'messy' forms of environmental management that have replaced more technocratic approaches to solving environmental problems. These are commonly encounter problems with agreeing and coordinating knowledge, roles and responsibilities. However, this observation also offers hope for the future: if the challenges of NFM are shared with other fields and experiences, so may be the solutions. We conclude with some brief ideas about how to tackle the barriers to implementing NFM.