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Devastating floods in Asia throw spotlight on need for action on climate change resilience

23 July 2020

Devastating floods currently sweeping across Asia once again highlight the tragic effects of climate change and the tremendous responsibility on civil engineers to provide resilience to people and communities that live with this terrible threat.

Devastating floods in Asia throw spotlight on need for action on climate change resilience
Flooding in Jiujiang city in east China's Jiangxi province

In southern and central China weeks of abnormally intense rains have wrought destruction, leaving at least 140 people dead or missing and affecting nearly 25 million residents in the worst flooding the region has seen since 1998 when floods ultimately killed more than 3,000 people. Weather experts say global warming is partly to blame.

Meanwhile at least 200 are dead or missing and nearly four million displaced in India’s north-eastern state of Assam and neighbouring areas as a result of heavy flooding from monsoon rains since late May.

So what are the UK Government's plans to tackle flooding risk?

It is a grim backdrop against which the UK government has revealed its own long-term plan to tackle the risks of flooding and coastal erosion. The measures set out in the new plan are the most comprehensive in a decade, including investment of £5.2bn to create around 2,000 new flood and coastal defences to better protect 336,000 properties in England by 2027, alongside support to help households and businesses get back on their feet more quickly after flooding.

The government’s ambitious long-term plan sets out five key commitments – supported by over 40 clear actions - which will accelerate progress to better protect and better prepare the country for the coming years. These are:

  • Upgrading and expanding flood defences and infrastructure across the country
  • Managing the flow of water to both reduce flood risk and manage drought
  • Harnessing the power of nature to not only reduce flood risk, but deliver benefits for the environment, nature, and communities
  • Better preparing communities for when flooding and erosion does occur
  • Ensuring every area of England has a comprehensive local plan for dealing with flooding and coastal erosion

The plans include £200 million for innovative projects such as sustainable drainage systems and nature-based solutions like temporary or permanent water storage areas which also boost wildlife. These will support 25 areas at risk of flooding to test and demonstrate innovative actions to adapt to a changing climate and improve their resilience.

Government says the pledge to harness the power of nature to reduce flood risk, while protecting and restoring habitats, will play a part in the UK’s contribution to COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021 where the restoration of nature and resilience and adaptation will be major themes.

We need innovative solutions

For civil engineers the plan is hugely welcomed, both in terms of the financial commitment to supporting work that goes to the heart of why many chose the profession and also for the encouragement now being given to innovative solutions. This latter point is hugely encouraging – and exciting.

Civil engineers in flood risk management have been at the cutting edge of innovation in recent years and this week’s knowledge newsletter highlights just one – the Totnes flood defence scheme.

Totnes is a historic town renowned for its close-knit-community and architecture. Sadly, it has historically been badly impacted by flooding. While a flood defence scheme was built in the 1980s, changes to land use and climate change led to increased flood risk.

In 2018, the Environment Agency, working with Mott MacDonald and Bam Nuttall carried out a major £3.8m improvement to the defences, reducing to the risk of flooding to 400+ homes and businesses. Through collaboration the project team saved £400,000 in capital cost though innovative design which is sympathetic to the historic built environment.

Watch our webinar on the Totnes Flood Defence Improvements below.

Solutions brought to bear included temporary storage areas of the kind now being promoted and, in partnership with the Dartington Trust, the project team developed a seven hectare wetland upstream of Totnes providing further community and ecological benefits.

And through use of carbon management tools the team identified opportunities to significantly reduce the quantity of carbon generated through the project life cycle.

It’s just one example; there are countless others. It’s also a relatively modest scheme and clearly not addressing problems on a scale of China and India right now. But innovations can always be upscaled. That the UK government encouraging innovation is a rare thing and this is an opportunity to be seized.

  • Mark Hansford, director of engineering knowledge at Institution of Civil Engineers