image © Gabriella Rundblad, while original earth image courtesy of NASA National Space Science Data Center

The impact of language and cognition on compliance during a natural disaster
Improving communication with people affected by flooding


The Leverhulme Trust


King's College London
University of East Anglia
Drinking Water Inspectorate
Health Protection Agency


Gabriella Rundblad
Paul Hunter
Olivia Knapton
Jo Van Herwegen
Alastair Cullen
Anne Conde


September 2008 - Sept 2010


The UK Water Industry Act (1991; amended by the Water Act 2003) states that water companies must only supply water that is fit for human consumption (Section 70) and that if a breach of the drinking water standards occurs, they must take appropriate action. Such action naturally includes investigating the breach, its cause, its likely effect on public health and restoring standards. They must also decide whether consumers need be informed about the breach, including whether special advice needs to be issued. If public health is threatened, the three standard notices that could be issued are: 'boil water', 'do not drink' and 'do not use'.

In July-August 2007, some 140,000 households lost their drinking water supply due to flooding of the Mythe water treatment works in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. By investigating the Mythe incident, we can explore how and why professionals and the public differentially understand and communicate about risks and their prevention. The combination of conventional research methods with a new cognitive linguistics approach allow use to include a more comprehensive range of potential factors. In particular, the largely ignored role of language will be established. In conjunction with stakeholders, this project ultimately aims to offer new and improved water notices.


We have presented the results from this study at the Health Protection Agency Conference, September 2009, Warwick, UK, the American Public Health Association Annual Meeting & Exposition, November 2009, Philadelphia, US, the Society for Risk Analysis-Europe conference, June 2010, London, UK, the Communication, Medicine and Ethics conference, June 2010, Boston, US, and the 3rd UK Cognitive Linguistics Conference, July 2010, Hertfordshire, UK.

King's College London and the Drinking Water Inspectorate jointly hosted a Knowledge Transfer Workshop on the 13th October 2010 at KCL's Waterloo campus, as part of this project. This event featured talks from academics and communications professionals from the water industry and wider stakeholders, discussing a wide range of recent communication challenges. Copies of workshop presentations are available here.

Rundblad, G., Knapton, O., and Hunter, P. 2010. Communication, perception and behaviour during a natural disaster involving a ‘Do Not Drink’ and a subsequent ‘Boil Water’ notice: a postal questionnaire study. BMC Public Health 10:641. [This article was on the shortlist for the 5th BMC Annual Research Award in Medicine for 2010].

Knapton, O., and Rundblad, G. 2014. Public health in the UK media: Cognitive Discourse Analysis and its application to a drinking water emergency. In Hart, C. and Cap, P (eds.), Contemporary Studies in Critical Discourse Analysis, 559-582. Bloomsbury Press.

Rundblad, G., Knapton, O., and Hunter, P. 2014. The causes and circumstances of drinking water incidents impact consumer behaviour: comparison of a routine versus a natural disaster incident. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 11(11): 11915-11930.

Copies of articles are available here.

A copy of the final project report is available here.

© 2008-2011