2019 – Using Risk Communication to Address the Dam Safety Knowledge Gap in Communities

Sophie Walker, Amisha Mehta, Clinton Weeks, Aimee Tutticci, Ellen Tyquin

International emergency agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) in the U.S. highlight a lack of public awareness of hazards relating to dams (FEMA, 2012). This is an issue faced by emergency management agencies around the world, including in Australia and New Zealand. Without hazard awareness, communities who live downstream of large dams are potentially more vulnerable to possible risks, and are likely to be less resilient when hazards arise. One way to address this knowledge gap is risk communication or the meaningful and purposeful exchange of information about risk among relevant parties (Covello, von Winterfeldt, & Slovic, 1984).

This study adopted a mental models approach (see Lazrus et al., 2016) to identify community members’ knowledge of dam failure by comparing their views with those of experts. Data were collected via depth interviews with dam safety experts (n=5) from across Australia, and community members (n=26) living downstream of dams in South East Queensland in Australia. Participants were asked to discuss knowledge about dam failure and to evaluate a dam safety message taken from a U.S. dam authority that was verbally read to them. Interviews were transcribed and analysed to identify the gaps between expert and community member knowledge.

Analysis showed some convergence on general dam operations but, less comprehensive community understanding of the causes of dam failure and dam safety management. Response to the U.S. dam safety message was mixed, with some participants believing it delivered the message appropriately, and others feeling it overstated risk or that its intended use was primarily to protect dam operators. Notably, these varied responses were often related to participants’ level of knowledge of dams. Combined, the findings highlight an opportunity to close the gap in knowledge. These findings will inform the strategies and materials for the South East Queensland bulk water authority Seqwater in engaging with communities downstream of their 26 dams. The research will guide the approach in conveying knowledge with an appropriate tone to support ongoing community engagement activities and increase resilience.

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