Building a greener society – climate change and flooding

3 February 2016

Following our January Board meeting, non-executive director Alison Vipond shares her thoughts on climate change following the recent floods…

December was the UK’s wettest month in a century. Storms Desmond, Eva and Frank dumped a huge amount of rain (a record 13.4 inches in just 24 hours in Honister in Cumbria). Overall, the high ground of Snowdonia, northern England and southern Scotland received between half and three-quarters of a year’s rain from November to mid-January.

There were strong winds, but the biggest impacts were caused by flooding. Record amounts of rain fell on ground that was already saturated from rain in October and November. There was serious flooding in parts of Cumbria, Northumberland, Lancashire, North Manchester and West Yorkshire. Power outages affected 20,000 homes. As floodwaters moved downstream from the Pennines, thousands of properties were flooded in north Manchester, York, Leeds and surrounding areas. Several towns in Dumfries and Galloway were badly flooded. Over New Year into January, more heavy rain brought flooding in Aberdeenshire, for example at Ballater and Braemar.

Early estimates suggest 16,000 properties were flooded during December 2015 in England alone. Price Waterhouse Coopers estimate the total UK economic loss of between £2 billion and £2.8 billion and insured UK losses of between £1 billion and £1.4 billion.

The emotional and physical upheaval was immense for the thousands of people who had to evacuate their homes and afterwards face the demoralising process of loading their damaged possessions into council skips and cleaning out the dirt and debris. Being flooded out is a long process; affected residents face months in alternative accommodation while their homes are dried out, stripped out (carpets, wall paper, stud walls, damaged plaster, skirting, plugs, wooden doors and frames) and then refitted.

In my local area, the River Tyne breached recently-improved flood barriers, surging into streets, houses and fields. It’s not long since the last flood, but I was really struck that this time, friends and neighbours attributed the floods to climate change. When the local and national news report the vast numbers of people flooded from their homes in different parts of the country, climate change starts to feel very real.

We can’t say that climate change was the definite or only cause of the storms. Extreme weather does happen, and this year the natural El Nino effect has brought a significant slow moving weather front loaded with rain. But scientists have used detailed climate models which demonstrate the storms were at least partly down to climate change.

Extreme weather events are predicted to become more frequent as the climate changes. Global average temperatures have now reached 1 degree above pre-industrial levels, and that has committed the world to some significant changes in climate.

Current flood defences in the UK clearly aren’t enough. So we need a new plan on how to cope with big storms. Experts agree that there isn’t a panacea, and a set of measures will be needed. Certainly we need to make best use of flood defences. Towns like Keswick and Carlisle are defended by hard defences such as flood walls and embankments which are designed to protect from a 1 in 100 year flood level, but they were thoroughly overwhelmed in December.

Building the flood defences higher is an option, but as well as the capital cost, there is sometimes a limit to how high these can be built and still allow a city centre to function properly. Other options are about making good use of large scale water storage upstream, preventing water surging into towns and cities.

Much of the rain which fills our rivers falls in the hills. There continues to be a lot of research going on to test different measures to slow the flow of water in upland areas – planting trees, creating wetlands, reducing compaction of the soil by animals and machinery. With the recent floods, there has been a lot of media discussion about how upland management could be changed to protect residential areas downstream.

Another possibility is to designate flood zones on agricultural land to store water temporarily. That policy hasn’t ever been promoted in the UK, indeed, it’s mostly been the case that land has been drained to create more use-able land. But in Asian countries, areas of agricultural land are allowed to flood during the monsoon, to protect populations in cities.

Compensating farmers for flooding areas of designated land, if done in a cooperative way, could be cost-effective, and would be less disruptive to the economy and people’s lives than allowing flood waves to rush towards towns and cities.

What is certain is that a number of water management measures will be required, requiring an immense effort in collaboration and co-operation, literally from the remote hills to the city centres.

At an individual level, if we live in a flood risk area, we are wise to retrofit our homes to be more resilient to flooding, such as installing flood protection doors, non-return valves on drains, air brick covers and placing plug sockets higher up the wall. We also need to hold local planners to account, so that flood risk is not obscured by policy pressure to allocate more land for much-needed housing.

Storms Desmond, Eva and Frank have wreaked havoc, but they are also a call to action.