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Keeping Our Heads Above Water


When it comes to flooding in the UK, we seem to be heading for a perfect storm.  Sea levels continue to rise. Global warming will cause warmer, wetter winters. Extreme rainfall events both in summer and winter, the cause of highly dangerous flash floods, will happen with increasing frequency. What is the UK doing to prepare for future risks, and is it enough?

Flooding can be simply described as lots of water in the wrong place. There are many different causes, which can interact in complex ways. Coastal flooding most commonly occurs due to storm surges, with high storm winds and low pressure pushing sea water over the top of coastal defences. This is exacerbated by the inexorable rise in sea levels caused by melting glaciers and ice sheets. Since 1900, sea levels have risen faster than in any preceding century for at least the last 3,000 years. Oceans take a long time to warm up, so at least two more metres of sea level rise is now unpreventable – possibly much more, depending on the increase in global warming we allow to happen.

Inland, the main cause of flooding is extended or heavy rainfall overwhelming the capacity of the soil to absorb it, and of rivers, water courses and drains to carry it away.  Overflowing sewers represent another kind of danger. A flash flood is a fast-moving and unexpected flood, generally caused by intense rainstorms, where more than 30mm falls in an hour. Climate models predict these will happen five times more often by 2080.  Flash floods are a particular danger in densely-populated urban environments, where torrents are unable to dissipate.  Even 30cm of fast-moving flood water can be enough to float a car.

No individual extreme weather event is entirely attributable to the climate crisis. However, the rising frequency and scale of disasters fit a pattern which scientists agree is in keeping with rising average global temperatures and the worsening climate crisis.

The problem is not that the risks of flooding are not known by the authorities at every level.  Nor that appropriate solutions including Natural Flood Management, harnessing sustainable resources, are not available. It’s that the UK’s response is insufficient and far too slow.  According to the Government’s own UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2022 (CCRA22), published in January: “Unless we take further action, under a 2°C by 2100 warming scenario annual damages from flooding for non-residential properties across the UK is expected to increase by 27% by 2050 and 40% by 2080. At 4°C this increases to 44% and 75% respectively.”

In its February report, the Environment Agency warned that if global temperatures continue to rise in line with current trends, the UK will need to spend £1 billion a year to adequately protect homes from flooding. Currently the UK government spends just £600 million. The EA estimates that for every £1 spent on defences, around £9 in property damages and wider impacts would be avoided.

Effective communication is vital. Nearly two in three UK households at risk of flooding don’t believe it will happen to them, the Environment Agency reported last November.  This is the same proportion as in a previous report by the EA three years earlier, in spite of a national communication campaign to boost awareness.  In 2019, only a third of people whose properties the EA considered to be at risk of flooding were aware of that risk.

And astonishing though it may seem, one in ten of all new homes are still being built in flood zones.  The only reference to this in the Government’s 49-page CCRA22 reads: “As part of our reforms to the planning system, the government will consider what mechanisms and policy may be needed to ensure wider flood risk issues are considered during decision making. This includes future flood risk from rivers and the sea, surface water and ground water flood risk.

The Climate Change Committee (CCC), the UK government’s official advisers, said in June 2021 that the Government was failing to protect people from the fast-rising risks of the climate crisis, with action to improve resilience not keeping pace with the impacts of global heating. The CCC’s experts said they were frustrated by the “absolutely illogical” lack of sufficient action on adaptation, given that taking action is up to 10 times more cost-effective than not doing so.

The chair of the CCC’s adaptation committee, Julia King, also warned: “Adaptation should be integral to ‘levelling up’ [in the UK]. Poorer households are more severely affected by the health and financial consequences of flooding and other extremes.

So how can we take action in our own towns and cities? Here are some of the inspiring examples of councils and communities who have been working together to tackle local flooding. (Type ‘flooding’ into the Search box at the top of this page to discover dozens more.)

Nottinghamshire County Council is collaborating with its communities and partners to apply technology such as telemetry, CCTV and drones, to increase the resilience of its communities to flooding. This exciting new approach accurately focuses the council’s resources on the people and properties most at risk – while also greatly reducing its carbon footprint in providing support – before, during and after floods.

In Dales Brow, local sewers were increasingly overwhelmed by flooding, leading to a standing pool of water on the highway and creating the risk of pollutants overflowing into the natural water course. Salford City Council, United Utilities, City of Trees and the EA invested together in a Sustainable Drainage System of bioswales, wetland, hedges and trees, to create a natural solution to the issue, while also providing an enhanced green space for local people to enjoy and creating a new habitat for wildlife.

The city of Hull, situated in a natural bowl making it prone to flooding by tides, river and rain, has created the Living With Water Partnership, to address these risks in a naturally sustainable way that will provide resilience for businesses and communities for years to come. They spoke about their partnership with great passion and energy, in a Carbon Copy Podcast episode entitled Blue Green City Of The Future.

As the Environment Agency says in its November 2021 report: “To create climate-resilient places, the ownership of flooding and coastal change needs to include everyone. We all have a role to play… people at immediate risk of flooding and those who aren’t; small and large businesses, as much as national and local government. This is why we need a nation of climate champions.

Image Credit: Chris Gallagher, Unsplash

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