How societies can cope with flood risk along coasts and riverbanks is a critical theoretical and empirical problem – particularly in the wake of anthropogenic climate change and the increased severity of floods. An example of this challenge is the growing costs of publicly-funded flood defense in Britain and popular outcries during the regular occasions that the British government fails to protect property and land during heavy rains. Traditional approaches to institutional analysis suggest that flood management is either a public good that only the government is competent to provide or a private good to which individual landowners are ultimately responsible for supplying. We argue that an important cause of failure in flood management is mismatched property rights. This is where the scale of natural events and resources fail to align with the scale of human activities, responsibility and ownership. Moreover, the spatial dimensions of floods mean that their management is often appropriately conceptualized as a common pool resource problem. As a result, commons institutions as conceptualized and observed by Elinor Ostrom are likely to be major contributors to effective flood management. What governance process should decide the size and scope of these institutions? We argue that bottom-up responses to problems of mismatched property rights are facilitated within larger societies that are characterized by market processes. Moreover, the wider presence of price signals delivers to local communities essential knowledge about the cost of maintaining private property and the relative scarcity of the communal goods. We discuss how our theoretical positions align with experience in Britain and what the implications of our theoretical approach are for facilitating the development of better institutions.
University of Lincoln, College of Social Science Research
Nick Cowen, University of Lincoln, School of Social and Political Sciences
Charles Delmotte, New York University