Living with floods: Social practices and transformations of flood management in Chiapas, Mexico (Stephan, 2020)

Raul Pacheco-Vega

HD Stephan, C. 2020. Living with floods: Social practices and transformations of flood management in Chiapas, Mexico. Franz Steiner Verlag, ISBN 978-3-515-12480-5, 336 p., €58.


Raul Pacheco-Vega

Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) Mexico,

To cite this Review: Pacheco-Vega, R. 2021. Review of "Living with floods: Social practices and transformations of flood management in Chiapas, Mexico", Franz Steiner Verlag, 2020, by Chistiane Stephan,


Understanding floods as disasters requires us to take a deep dive into the social lives of those who cope with the challenges that abrupt climatic events posit on a daily basis. That Christiane Stephan chose to seek to understand how residents in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas are able to adapt and live with floods is a wise move. Chiapas is a flood-prone area where populations can also be extremely vulnerable to the negative impacts that excess water can offer. Stephan takes a view of floods as complex socio-ecological phenomena where humans and their surroundings interact in ways that make decision-making extremely hard. This kind of deep, profound examination of the social lives of individuals facing risks is not only necessary but also timely. Stephan is also extremely sensitive to the communities she studied and cognizant of the potential burden her research would put on those who she was interested in studying. As a case study in the ethics of fieldwork of marginalized communities in vulnerable regions, this book offers an excellent series of examples of how researchers can approach these sensitive and thorny issues with robust ethics, profound care and sensitivity to the challenges facing individuals living in communities vulnerable to floods.

The book is extremely readable and offers 10 chapters, several of which are empirical (6-9) and others methodological (5) and contextual (2, 3). As drawn and drafted from a doctoral dissertation, the flow is similar to any research study where the researcher began probing several aspects of the same issue, in this case, the social, ecological and political aspects of individual responses to flooding in Chiapas, particularly within the Usumacinta river region. I found myself most drawn to the methodological chapter (5) because of my own interest on the ethics of research that is not extractive nor entirely positioned from the Global North. However, I believe readers will find the empirical aspects extremely useful. Particular attention should be paid to Chapter 6, where Stephan describes the particular practices of living with the flood. This chapter sets the stage for the remaining empirical components. Who has to confront the vulnerability of their community, their family and their region to abrupt climatic events? Who makes the decisions and what kind of adaptive practices do they engage in? These are all questions that derive from an in-depth reading of “Living with Floods”, but in particular from engaging with the empirical material.

I was particularly drawn to Stephan’s choice to document practices of anticipation in Chapter 7. In a world where adaptation to climatic change seems to still be gaining adepts and not yet a mainstream consideration, Stephan is able to show the reader how communities facing flood risk anticipate and transform their productive processes, living arrangements and social interactions to better prepare for any potential flooding that can occur.  Chapter 8 uses an interesting inter-scalar analysis to combine the analysis of what kinds of approaches do local people in the State of Chiapas use to anticipate and manage potential village flood with external actors. To connect these analyses, she uses the concept of riskscape, (described in Chapter 9). In particular, Stephan pays substantive attention to the multilevel governance of flood risk in Mexico. While there are several groups of actors at various governmental levels that deal with helping local communities and villages facing flood risk with the challenges they are encountering, Stephan’s analysis reveals that these governmental actors are not capable of doing enough to protect these populations and therefore these social practices of risk flood management emerge at the community level. An inter-scalar, multi-level analysis is extremely useful because it sheds light on the different jurisdictional responsibilities, but also on the complex network of relationships that need to be able to organize properly to provide support to flood-afflicted communities. More importantly, Stephan makes a really key point in emphasizing the need for inter-agency and cross-sectoral collaborations.

As human geographers will be most familiar with concepts like waterscapes, or shitscapes, the notion of riskscape will be familiar, as defined by Stephan as the set of social practices of flood management. In Stephan’s own words:

"different social practices related to flood management reveal patterns of synchrony and asynchrony, of strengthening or weakening each other and they contradict or complement each other. Social practices in their specific interrelations create patterns that influence the dynamics of social phenomena, which can reach from the local up to the global scale" (p. 232)

The work of Stephan reveals the broad range of riskscapes that we can encounter, not only in Chiapas, Mexico, but elsewhere in the world where we can foresee a need for social adaptability to flood risks and other abrupt climatic events. Overall, I found Christiane Stephan’s multiple methods’ approach (visual ethnography, participatory action research) extremely compelling and her account of social practices of flood management in the Rio Usumacinta region in Chiapas, in southern Mexico, professionally researched and powerfully written. I was particularly taken with her ethically-robust approach to scholarly investigations in a country and within a region with high degree of vulnerability to climatic events and profound degrees of marginalization. Overall, very much a recommended read.




Additional Info

  • Authors: Christiane Stephan
  • Year of publication: 2020
  • Publisher: Franz Steiner Verlag
  • Reviewer: Raul Pacheco-Vega
  • Subject: Water governance, Environment, Flood, Equity, Water and community, Climate change
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English