The winter of 2019/20 has been a wet one. We have seen a number of Atlantic storms which have brought record-breaking conditions in different parts of the country, resulting in flooding for many communities.
Yet this is not exceptional. Flooding occurs frequently in this country and our winters are often characterised by successions of winter storms which initially saturate ground and then progressively ratchet up the pressure on at-risk communities.
What is noticeable is that the frequency and intensity of such storms appears to be increasing. This is entirely consistent with projections by our world-leading Met Office on the impacts of climate change on the UK: hotter, drier summers and warmer, wetter winters.
Whilst thus far relatively infrequent heatwaves are more dangerous in terms of their ability to precipitate premature death, flooding has tragically taken lives and causes extensive economic and psychological damage to affected communities on a far more frequent basis. The traumatic affects of flooding can endure for months and years. More frequent flooding is the face of climate change in the UK.
Some communities this winter have been flooded for the first time in decades. Others are reeling from yet another incidence in a handful of years. Millions are at risk of flooding in the UK. The way flood risk management is funded and prioritised in this country means that none can be fully protected; flood risk managers can only try to reduce the risk as best they can with resources at their disposal.
Major flooding characterised the run-up to the recent general election. All parties made pledges to increase the amount of money invested in reducing flood risk. The government must now ensure that a meaningful uplift in resourcing for the bodies charged with managing this risk is delivered in the forthcoming budget. £4bn over the next five years is being proposed.
There has been much discussion during the recent events about what we should be doing better and more of to reduce flood risk. Whilst the pain and distress experienced by flooded communities is the primary concern, too often lost in the discussion is the number of communities who have been protected in any given event by improvements to warnings, speed of response, deployment of temporary defences etc by bodies such as the Environment Agency and the emergency services.
There is more that can be done. Yet higher defences and bigger pumps are not the answer. Upland tree planting is not the answer. Flood doors and barriers and resilient homes are not the answer. Sustainable drainage systems – green roofs, rain gardens and storage ponds in urban areas – are not the answer. Dredging is most definitely not the answer.
However, combinations of many of these interventions, delivered in the right places and at the right scale, driven by more ambitious and coherent policies and supported by greater investment and direction of funding is an answer.
All have a role to play. But understanding in what combination they will work most effectively, in each flood-prone area, is a big job that must be taken very seriously by government. The right bodies and agencies must be equipped with the resources and means to deliver this work.
This means more resources for the Environment Agency to deliver more flood schemes. It means more resources for local authorities to manage surface water flood risk, help communities recover, become more resilient and crucially, properly scrutinise and enforce new development to ensure that it doesn’t exacerbate flood risk, but if anything reduces it through incorporating natural flood storage measures.
It means designing a new post-Brexit farm subsidy regime which prioritises land management approaches that store water high up in river catchments, in the right places, so it doesn’t flow rapidly downstream into vulnerable communities.
'In the right places' is a critical element of this; if money is tight it needs to be targeted. This means those overseeing such a scheme must be resourced to strategically identify where subsidy for this purpose should be best directed and to support farmers and land managers in those areas to deliver the public benefit most effectively.
Government should also look seriously at whether practices such as burning upland moors to manage them for grouse shooting is an appropriate activity upstream of flood-prone communities and at a time of climate emergency.
It is likely that any increase in frequency and intensity of winter storms that we are seeing now is just the start. We will see worse in the years and decades to come.
Michael Gove recently announced that a priority for Government at this autumn’s UN climate summit, which the UK is hosting, is to "put climate adaptation and resilience at the heart of everything we do". This is hugely welcome and not before time. Doing so will cost money, invested across a number of fronts.
But CIWEM is clear. Not investing adequately, not just on defences but on a range of fronts, will cost far more in the long run.
Statement by Alastair Chisholm, Director of Policy - CIWEM
contact Alastair at Alastair.chisholm@ciwem.
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