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When storms – such as those we have seen recently in Cumbria – cause already existing flood defences to be overtopped, Professor David Balmforth asks, what is the solution?
Do we simply build higher defences? While this might seem to many the obvious choice, it is likely that even higher flood defence walls may not be welcome in most communities. Such walls and embankments can visually and physically divide a community, cutting it off from important vistas that help to create a good sense of space. Already we see the design of flood defence walls softened with glass panels to make them less visible. Do we really want to add an extra metre to these facilities?
But if not, what else might be done to stop a repeat of 2015’s floods?
Even with well-designed defences, we must open our minds to other possibilities. We must explore options that help communities to become more resilient to flooding and thus avoid much of the hardship seen after the recent events.
The concept of building resilience to flooding is by no means new. There are plenty of examples of success. Yet, here in the UK we have not so far succeeded in supporting communities to become resilient to flooding in a structured and strategic way.
There are three obvious areas where we might do better.
Despite the lessons learnt in responding to recent floods, there are still many gaps in helping communities to recover from floods. This is particularly true with the longer term impacts, such as the effects on health.
Strong leadership on flood risk management is important. Strategically we might serve society better if we were to see flood risk management as consisting of two parallel strands, one that seeks to protect communities and infrastructure from flooding through the provision and maintenance of appropriate flood defences, and the other to build effective flood resilience into communities, whether or not they benefit from defence works.
The challenge for Government is that the responsibility for delivering the resilience measures set out above is split between different departments, principally the Cabinet Office, Communities and Local Government, and Defra.
We need to see a much more joined-up approach to ensure that the flood resilience strand of flood risk management receives immediate attention and appropriate long term investment.
The Government has promised an investigation into the recent events. We do not need another extensive review of flood risk management in the England (we have yet to implement all the important recommendations of the 2008 Pitt Review).
But we do need to better understand and communicate what we can expect from our investment in flood defences in the future.
The promise of Government funds to help home owners and businesses affected by the recent floods to improve the resilience of their property is welcome. It would be a very positive step forward to see property that has suffered from the recent floods reinstated in a flood resilient form rather than simply putting back what was there before.
Hopefully the Government will now look at how such support could be more widely implemented so that households and businesses do not have to wait until after they have flooded before they can make their premises more resilient to floods.
At the very least we could ensure that all new development is built to a flood resilient standard.
Explore more of our knowledge on flood defences and control
Professor David Balmforth is a national flooding expert, currently an Executive Technical Director with international consultants MWH. His work covers all aspects of urban flood control, pollution management and climate change adaptation in the wastewater sector, and he is currently advising on major flood alleviation projects in London and Singapore.
An independent advisor to the UK Water Regulator (OFWAT) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and to Thames Water and the Greater London Authority, David is a visiting professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Imperial College, London.