the Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement (MSFSS)
This approach creates space for water during high-flow events to improve flood safety while also incorporating values for environmental protection, recreation, culture, and aesthetics. The safety levels were determined by the national government but the 32 projects were designed with regional and municipal governments, Water Boards, businesses, residents, NGOs and others.
Studying at Wageningen University and Research Centre and Delft University of Technology for three months via the MSFSS was a life-changing experience. It provided rich professional and personal benefits too numerous to capture in this write-up, so I will only highlight a few of them.
Overall, my PhD research identified that the RfR projects in Alberta were perceived as shifting focus away from top-down and large-scale infrastructure approaches toward a more participatory and environmentally-sustainable flood management system, with research participants and the public voicing support for the RfR philosophy and demanding more projects. However, unlike transferrable technological change, RfR requires fundamental shifts in paradigms and practices—including changes in institutional structures, decision-making processes, and power dynamics—and hence is more challenging to implement.
Based on my PhD research findings that the RfR projects in Alberta opened a path for institutionalising a more comprehensive flood management system, I wondered, what policies and practices are needed to make more room for rivers and voices in flood risk management? The purpose of my research in the Netherlands was to gain a better understanding of the Dutch RfR approach and how to implement or adapt their governance approach in Alberta.
To that end, I conducted research in the Netherlands on their RfR approach in addition to my main PhD research, with the same research objectives for comparison: 1. Investigate decision-making processes; and 2. Analyze stakeholder engagement processes. I conducted 11 interviews in the Netherlands and 38 in Alberta with individuals in decision-making and advisory roles, such as managers, directors, planners, engineers, developers, contractors, scientists, media, non-profits and water organizations. I also analyzed policies, historical and other documents.
The other main activity was to learn about stakeholder engagement methods. Delft University and Deltares have developed a unique collaborative modelling approach and a planning kit for their signature stakeholder engagement approaches. I also learned about ‘serious’ interactive role-playing games which are becoming a popular tool for addressing complex social and environmental problems and even had the opportunity to play several fun games. Incidentally, being introduced to role-playing games has opened up opportunities to work on the Future Energy Systems program, more specifically in the Energy Humanities section, developing agame, amongst other activities, to explore climate change and energy transition.
The Environmental Policy Group at Wageningen University was very welcoming. It was exciting to meet many scholars whose publications are foundational in environmental sociology. I joined the Best Practices reading group at Wageningen University and its members brought me up to speed on the current European debates in practice theory. The professors and PhD students are highly knowledgeable about practice-based approaches and helped to further my ideas by providing feedback on my work. One of the leading scholars in practice theory, Dr. Allen Warde, visited Wageningen University and gave a talk on his new publication.
Having office space at Wageningen University, I observed differences in culture and procedures between Wageningen University and my home university. Exemplifying the Dutch culture of collaboration, it is more common for professors and students to work together on multi-disciplinary and multi-layered projects as a team than it is for a student to toil alone on a large project.
I was invited to present on my research at the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in Delft and received very useful feedback. One of my goals since I was a teen was to work with the United Nations and that is one reason I decided to pursue a PhD. It was an indescribable feeling being at the IHE and coming a step closer to this dream! At the IHE Institute’s conference, a multi-disciplinary approach (social sciences and physical sciences) to flood risk management was promoted – this message further reinforced that I was on the right track with the main arguments of my research.
Not all the activities I did were planned ahead of time - often one opportunity led to another. The Dutch were very friendly and offered me tours of their RfR projects, historic towns, and the Delta works (mega-infrastructures for coastal flood defence). I attended a conference on the role of culture in disaster risk reduction by EDUCEN. It was amazing to meet people from all over Europe and to learn about various research projects and best practices in flood management.
I traveled to the University of Lancaster to meet with Dr. Elizabeth Shove whose version of practice theory I am applying. It is quite rare that students get to meet the scholars whose theories they are interpreting and to have discussion about it! I learned about the DEMAND Centre and their innovative work on energy and mobility. I was also very fortunate to be invited to present at the University of Dundee and to learn more about all the interesting work they are doing on flood management.
When I returned to Alberta, I presented at conferences comparing findings between the Netherlands and Alberta and attendees (representatives from industry and all levels of government from across the Canada) were interested in learning about the Dutch approach in greater detail and in exploring potential applications. While they have their challenges and struggles, overall, the Dutch have a more democratic, inclusive, and innovative approach to riverine flood risk management: I hope that sharing my research findings will create opportunities for more room for voices and rivers in Alberta and beyond.