The ethics of flood risk management: Reconciling equity and efficiency in flood risk management

The number and impact of catastrophic floods have increased significantly in the last decade, endangering both human lives and the environment. With on-going climate change, the risk of flooding is likely to increase even further. This prompts the urgent question: how to use the limited resources available for flood risk management in an equitable and efficient way?


In the flood risk literature, this question is often reduced to a monetary optimization problem, ignoring the moral aspects. Neither is it recognized that people may have different, often conflicting, views on what equity and efficiency amount to. The goal of this project is to develop an ethical framework for reconciling efficiency and equity considerations in flood risk management.


In my PhD research, I developed a reflective equilibrium model for reconciling conflicting criteria when distributing responsibilities in a research team. In this VENI-project, I will explore a new line of distributive problems at a societal level, where we are confronted with a plurality of moral views and where collective interests may put pressure on individuals’ rights to be safeguarded against flooding. In such situations, it is extremely difficult to find a morally acceptable trade-off between efficiency and equity.


The overall research question is: how to reconcile equity and efficiency in flood risk management in a way that is acceptable in a pluralistic society. By developing a procedural theory, this innovative project addresses two major challenges for risk governance and risk ethics. First, equity and efficiency will be properly conceptualized and operationalized for the context of flood risk management, which is required before any trade-off can be made. Second, equity and efficiency will be developed such that they are acceptable in a pluralistic society.


The approach followed in this project is based on political philosophical literature on distribution problems and empirical research on stakeholders’ opinions. The project will lead to action-guiding recommendations for flood risk management, enabling a morally acceptable implementation of flood risk policy.


VENI-grant for innovational research from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) (grant nr. 016.144.071). The project runs from February 1, 2014 - January 31, 2018.

Related Scientific publications (selection)


  • Doorn, N. forthcoming. "Allocating responsibility for environmental risks: A comparative analysis of examples from water governance". Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management (DOI: 10.1002/ieam.1799). available online
  • Doorn, N. forthcoming. "Resilience indicators: Opportunities for including distributive justice concerns in disaster management". Journal of Risk Research (DOI:10.1080/13669877.2015.1100662). available online
  • Toonen, Th. A. J. and N. Doorn. forthcoming. "Good governance for the commons: Design for legitimacy" In: The Design Turn in Applied Ethics. Eds: M. J. Van den Hoven, S. Miller and Th. W. M. Pogge. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.


  • Doorn, N. 2016. "Distributing responsibilities for safety from flooding". FLOODrisk 2016. 3rd European Conference on Flood Risk Management, France. E3S Web of Conferences 7, 24002 (2016) (DOI: 10.1051/e3sconf/20160724002). click to open pdf
  • Doorn, N. 2016. "Governance experiments in water management: From interests to building blocks". Science and Engineering Ethics 16(3) (DOI: 10.1007/s11948-015-9627-3). available online


  • Doorn, N and S.O. Hansson. 2015. "Design for the value of safety". In: Handbook of Ethics and Values in Technological Design. M. J. Van den Hoven, P. Vermaas and I.R. Van de Poel (eds.). Dordrecht, Springer.
  • Doorn, N. 2015. "The blind spot in risk ethics: Managing natural hazards". Risk Analysis 35/3: 354-360 (DOI: 10.1111/risa.12293). available online


  • Doorn, N. 2014. "Equity and the ethics of water governance" In: Infranomics - Sustainability, Engineering Design and Governance. Topics in Safety, Risk, Reliability and Quality. Eds. Gheorghe, A., M. Masera, and P.F. Katina. Dordrecht, Springer, pp. 155-64.


  • Doorn, N. 2013. "Water and justice: Towards and ethics of water governance" Public Reason 5/1: 95-111 click to open pdf

Related Professional/Popular publications


  • Doorn, N, B. Broekhans, and E. Mostert. 2013. "Redactioneel: Normen en waarden in water governance" (in Dutch) Water governance 3: 5 click to open pdf


  • Awarded


Research Theme

Research Area