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Drawing and Embodied Cognition for Understanding Flood Risk Perceptions: A Quick Toolkit

At our Critical Design for Urban Flooding field laboratory in Chiang Mai, fellows partnered with the Forum for Older Persons Development (FOPDEV) to assist with the disaster risk reduction planning of older persons living in the Nong Hoi district.

Sneha Malani, an architect who has worked in post-disaster housing reconstruction, and I teamed up to do quick back-to-back workshops to understand flood risk perceptions of older residents in Nong Hoi. Instead of doing the usual interviews or group discussions, Sneha and I decided to take an alternative route to explore flood risk perceptions and experiences by using drawing as well as performance inspired by the notion of embodied cognition.

A poster illustrated by Sneha Malani to summarise our back-to-back Flood Risk Perception Workshop

Diego Maranan (Plymouth University, UP Open University) -good friend, Curiosity colleague, and cognitive scientist- acquainted me with the concept 'embodied cognition'. Generally, we fathom the world and act upon our understanding as we experience it with our senses (Also see Ingold, 1992). For example, people who experienced Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) said that they knew they were in for a different storm when they *heard* the wind wailing like a woman in distress, when they *felt* the flood waters rising to their chests, and when they *saw* vehicles floating in flood water (Cajilig, Maranan, Francis, Zaksaite, 2019). Yolanda survivors also made decisions depending on what the flood level was in relation to their bodies (Cajilig et al., 2019).

I applied these findings to my workshop with older persons in Nong Hoi. FOPDEV prepared two strips of paper for each participant: yellow for stay, and green for evacuate. I stood in front of a group of about twenty participants and pointed to various parts of my body- ankle, knee, hip and shoulder- to represent various flood levels. As we pointed to each body part, participants would raise yellow cards for stay, and green cards for go. The following details the responses to each flood level:

Ankle level - All participants, regardless of location and house type, said they did not evacuate

Knee level - Participants, especially those in low lying areas, reported that they started to get concerned about the flood level and start to frequently monitor news on the radio.

Hip level - The 300mm level flood reported on the radio was roughly estimated as hip-level flood in the area.

Experience starts to dramatically diverge at this point, with a participant from a low-lying area stating that this would already equate to neck level in his house. Participants who only have first floors said they prepared to evacuate. 

Shoulder level - Residents in low lying areas within and around Nong Hoi with no second floors evacuated towards the flyover. Others evacuated to the cemetery or to the homes of relatives within the neighbourhood that had second floors. Residents with second floors moved themselves upstairs with their belongings.

However, the general preference was to stay home as much as possible, as they risked losing their possessions by evacuating. Even at head-level flood, they would stay and just move to upper floors or whichever level is possible. Notably, Residents stated that flood this high in low-lying areas took 7-10 days subside.

The book 'Drawn to See: Drawing as an Ethnographic Method' (Causey, 2016) supports Sneha's idea of using drawing to elicit perceptions and experiences of flood. As an architect, Sneha gravitates to drawing as a medium of communication and expression. Her workshop asked each resident to make three simple drawings of their houses: one for what their house looked like in 1980s, and two more drawings for each major flood in 2005 and 2011. The drawings revealed that houses made with natural local materials propped by stilts were popular in the 80s, but by 2005, most houses were bungalows, presumably made by concrete. By 2011 (and up to the time we were in Nong Hoi), residents' houses were still made of concrete, but many already had second floors.

FOPDEV thought the visual workshop techniques worked well for older adults, and they will be applying these to discuss flood risk in their other partner communities. The visual aspect also worked for myself and Sneha: we barely know any Thai, and the visual research technique that depended less on translated interviews still provided us with rich contextual information.


Cajilig, P. G., Fien, J., & Irajifar, L. (2019, October 3). Researching citizen participation within the architecture of post-disaster housing reconstruction: Towards a methodology rooted in

‘ecologies of creative practice ’. 2019 Annual Design Research Conference, Monash


Causey, A. (2016). Drawn to See: Drawing as Ethnographic Research. University of Toronto Press, Higher Education Division.

Ingold, Tim [1992] (2000). Hunting and gathering as ways of perceiving the environment. In

Ingold, The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling & skill. New

York: Routledge.

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