Rethinking how the UK deals with floods

20 February 2014



Sue Tapsell, Head of the Flood Hazard Research Centre at Middlesex University in London speaks with Suzanne Pritchard about the recent flooding in the UK. Does the UK now need to rethink its attitudes to flood defence?


Flooding (Source: Shutterstock)

Sue Tapsell, Head of the Flood Hazard Research Centre at Middlesex University in London, speaks with Suzanne Pritchard to give a brief overview of the recent flooding events that have been taking place throughout the UK.

Suzanne Pritchard: Have you witnessed or experienced weather patterns and flooding like this before in the UK or other countries in recent years?

Sue Tapsell, Head of the Flood Hazard Research Centre at Middlesex University

Sue Tapsell: The weather patterns that we have been experiencing in the UK this winter are exceptional and are linked to global weather patterns, such as those experienced in the US, which impact upon the Gulf Stream and lead to increased storminess and rainfall in the UK.

There have been prolonged large-scale flood events in the UK in the past, the winter of 1947 being one event that affected large parts of the country including the River Thames region; 1953 east coast flood; autumn 2000 and summer 2007. Although 2012 saw many flood events throughout the year they were on a much smaller scale to recent events but it was continuous. Weather patterns indicate an increase in the frequency of floods, storminess and sea level rise. The Somerset Levels has always flooded (it is below sea level and the water levels have been managed for centuries) and has been under water for months in the past during some of these events in earlier centuries so it is not a new phenomenon there.

Will situations like this become more commonplace in the future?

"It is highly likely that we will see more frequent flooding in the future, and particularly storm related flooding as the UK has experienced recently."

It is highly likely that we will see more frequent flooding in the future and particularly storm related flooding as the UK has experienced recently. The 2004 UK government-funded Foresight Future Flooding report of 2004 that the Flood Hazard Research Centre (FHRC) was involved in predicted such increases. Climate experts suggest that there is good evidence that this is linked with climate change.

What do you feel are the main problems that we are facing now in the UK in relation to the flooding?

The immediate problems are how we deal with helping those communities that have been affected to recover and rebuild themselves and how we rebuild the damaged infrastructure systems. The main problems are also how we deal with such events in the future and that sufficient resources are made available for that. In the longer term we will probably have to rethink how we deal with floods and seek more ways of adapting our properties, land management, cities and behaviour.

We need to bear in mind that most of our flood events in the UK are well managed and thousands of properties are protected by flood defences. We also have a good flood warning system for river and coastal flooding.

However, a key problem is the risk from surface water flooding in urban areas which results from the lack of drainage capacity following heavy or prolonged rainfall. Most of our drains date back to Victorian times and do not have the capacity to deal with the amount of runoff that we often experience in our cities today. There are now surface water flood maps available from the Environment Agency website but it is difficult to warn against such events.We are going to need to invest in more sustainable drainage systems (SUDS) to help mitigate the impacts of these events.

Do you feel that the current situation could have been avoidable?

It depends what you mean by the current situation. The floods are not avoidable as we cannot control the extreme weather that we have been experiencing - which is the cause of recent flooding (and not the lack of dredging as many people have implied). We could say that it is a natural disaster such as other parts of the world have to deal with.

"Some aspects of the current situation may have been avoided if the government or local authorities had reacted more quickly"

Some aspects of the current situation may have been avoided if the government or local authorities had reacted more quickly for example in the Somerset Levels by going to the aid of people more quickly and being more visible, but that is more a political issue than a flood defence one.

Drawing upon your research and expertise what do you feel are the most effective steps which now need to be taken to remedy the situation and improve flood defences for the future?

You mention flood defences. The current policy in the UK, and increasingly internationally, is to manage the risk from flooding rather than simply defending against flooding - which it is not always possible to do and certainly not possible in such extreme events. Therefore we need to look at ways of mitigating the risk from flooding (both the probability and consequences).

Increasingly non structural measures are being used such as land use planning, flood warning systems, public awareness raising and preparedness etc. These are used alongside structural flood defences where they are considered feasible and affordable according to Treasury cost-benefit guidelines. There are also individual property protection measures that households can take to adapt their homes to make them more flood-resistant such as fitting flood gates, air vent covers and non-return values to stop sewage coming up from the toilet.

Do we have to rethink attitudes to flood defence in the UK now?
Yes. We need to think more longer term about how we need to adapt society to live with the predicted increased frequency of flood events.


About the Flood Hazard Research Centre

Established in 1970, the Flood Hazard Research Centre (FHRC) comprises a small group of social and environmental scientists based within the School of Science and Technology at Middlesex University. The centre specialises in the interaction between people and the environment, together with the analysis and appraisal of environmental policies. Its aim is to improve policy making and implementation in the fields of hazard (flood prevalently), coastal and integrated water management and the different environmental and societal dimensions such as factors of change, human and social aspects, governance and decision making. The centre strives to include the human experience in what has in the past been a predominantly physical analysis of the hazard.

FHRC technical manuals form the basis of the economic appraisal of flood and coastal defence projects in the UK and have been used to justify investment decisions for flood alleviation for over 30 years. Its insights into flood risk have led to UK policy evaluation research examining the secondary effects of floods, such as human health impacts, social justice considerations, alternative risk assessment criteria and many other areas. Other research programmes have included: flood early warning systems, integrated coastal zone management, water governance, risk communication, vulnerability to natural hazards, social capacity building and the costs of natural hazards.

FHRC also has an office in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where it has conducted 20 years of research on floodplain management and, more recently, adaptation to climate change.

For more information visit the Flood Hazard Research Centre (FHRC) website: www.fhrc.mdx.ac.uk

 

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The Thames Flood Barrier protects central London from flooding caused by tidal surges. (Source: Environment Agency) The Thames Flood Barrier protects central London from flooding caused by tidal surges. (Source: Environment Agency)
Flooding defences protect the town of Upton, Worcestershire on 1 February (Credit: Environment Agency) Flooding defences protect the town of Upton, Worcestershire on 1 February (Credit: Environment Agency)


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