Macdonald, N., Chester, D., et al. 2011. The significance of Gilbert F. White’s 1945 paper “Human Adjustment to Floods’ in the Development of Risk and Hazard Management” Progress in Physical Geography 36 (1):125-133.


Chester N. Macdonald’s article “Human Adjustment to Floods’ in the Development of Risk and Hazard Management” admires the contributions made by Gilbert F. White who is also as a ‘father of floodplain management’ and writes “Human adjustment to floods’ has not only shaped how we study and perceive flooding but has also had…revolutionize the ways in which hazard and risk are conceptualized more generally” (p. 125). According to White, the context of increasing awareness and concern over flooding…is more complex, involving a flow of ideas through which a number of separate yet related themes can be determined (p. 126).

Macdonald argues that the ‘Human adjustment to floods’ requires a consideration of both its motivation, and philosophical and political contexts (p. 126) because changes in political and social awareness caused a shift in perspective, and White’s ‘Human adjustment to floods’ played a key role in redefining how hazards and human responses should be studied (p. 127). While the floods are acts of God, but flood losses are largely acts of man, White pioneered the integration of the study of human behavior and extreme natural events (p. 127) and proposed a new approach to managing the environment and development of policies of hazard reduction. White introduces the term ‘adjustment’ by spelling out the ways in which people may react to flooding. These ‘adjustments’ are: land elevation;  flood abatement (i.e. land-management upstream); flood protection (e.g. engineering solutions involving inter alia the use of levees, channel improvements, cutoffs and floodways); emergency measures (e.g. the temporary protection of property and persons); structural arrangements to physical structures such as roads and buildings; land-use changes; public relief and insurance (p. 128). ‘Human adjustment to floods’ tells us much about how flood mitigation and management have been conceptualized.

MacDonald emphasizes the works by White and writes “While accepting that factors of wealth, systems of belief, the experience of previous hazardous events and psychological factors have profound influences on human responses to disasters, White and his colleagues focused on…new adjustments to natural hazards…potentially either being short-lived or over time becoming an integral part of the adoptive fabric of the culture” (p.129). This is how MacDonald argues the concept of flood and its adjustment has changed over time.

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