Increasing the flood risk awareness of young people

Flooded area

Although large parts of the Netherlands are vulnerable to flooding from rivers or sea, the flood risk awareness of young people in the Netherlands is generally low. Students in secondary education generally underestimate the chance and impact of floods, and don’t know what to do in case of flooding. Utrecht University and Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences conduct research on how to make students more aware of water-related challenges in their local environment. Based on their research, they have also developed instruction materials that are currently used in secondary education.

“If you want to make young people aware of water-related challenges in their environment, you need to know what are frequently occurring misconceptions”, argues Geography and Education researcher Dr. Tim Favier from Utrecht University. “In addition, you need insight in  how students learn when they are confronted with different kinds of spatial information about water issues. For that, the research conducted by Dr. Adwin Bosschaart from the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences provides useful insights”, Favier says.

So, how do students think about flood risks in their local environment? “I think dikes are very strong, they can never breach.” “If the dikes breach, the water will be knee deep, at max.” “They will probably come to rescue me.” Just three expressions from interviews among 15-year old students in Culemborg, a village with one of the highest flood risks in the Netherlands. A large-scale survey among students in flood prone areas showed that they think that a flood may occur in the Netherlands, but that it is not going to happen to them (Figure 1). Their flood risk perception is low despite campaigns and lessons about water management in schoolbooks.

Flood risk awareness: results of a survey
Figure 1: Results of a survey among 483 students in secondary education who live in flood prone areas (Bosschaart, 2015).

Utrecht University and Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences have developed educational materials that aim to raise the flood risk awareness of students in secondary education, as commissioned by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management and ten regional water boards. The materials aim to develop students’ knowledge about the causes and effects of floods and flood-risk reduction policies.

For effective learning, students would have to experience what happens when a dike breaches. Therefore, the researchers have developed a web based application for secondary education (Figure 2) showing flood models in an interactive way. Students can click on a nearby dike, and see how fast the water will spread and how deep the water will be at their home when that dike would break. “This is really leaves a big impression on students,” sees Tim Favier. But, he argues, “besides pointing at the risks, it is also important to focus on what can be done. Therefore we let students investigate what measures the government can take to reduce flood risks. Next, students have to make a spatial plan to decrease flood risks in their community. Also, we let them prepare themselves for a flood. Which is best: horizontal evacuation - fleeing from the area - or vertical evacuation, moving to a higher floor? Good preparations may save your life”.

Figure 2: Screenshot from the application, which was specifically designed for use in secondary education. Developed by Anaximander and Utrecht University.

Teachers highly value the educational materials developed by the researchers. They especially appreciate the focus on the local environment, the use of good realistic resources and the challenging tasks.
The researchers organise so-called regional water education meetings with teacher training institutes and regional water boards to encourage the implementation of the lesson series. In these meetings, teachers can learn from researchers and water managers about water management and effective didactic approaches to teach about these specific issues.

Bosschaart, A. (2015). Dry feet in the polder? Improving flood-risk perception of 15-year-old students in the Netherlands. Amsterdam: Vrije Universiteit