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Beware of flood mitigation underspend

Mark Hansford

As this issue lands, much of Houston and the towns surrounding it are still underwater and 60 people are confirmed dead as a result of Tropical Storm Harvey.

Parts of south east Houston received over 600m of rain in 24 hours during the storm, and as of 12pm on 27 August it had dropped a total of 41 trillion litres of water on the greater Houston area and southeast Texas. Texas got so much rain that the National Weather Service had to update its maps with a brand new colour chart to reflect new totals. That is an incredible deluge.

But this part of Texas is no stranger to big floods; while Harvey is by far the biggest event so far, it comes after two others: one in 2015 and one in 2016. These were also considered to have been one in 500 year floods.

Global flooding

And Texas isn’t the only place to be suffering from catastrophic rain and flooding. In India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, a torrent of unrelenting monsoon rain has killed hundreds and displaced millions. Monsoon season is a part of life in South Asia, but this year’s floods have been some of the worst on record, killing over 1,200 people and displacing hundreds of thousands more. About 16M people total have been impacted across the three countries, aid officials say.

The bulk of the deaths have been in India, where the worst rains have been concentrated in the north eastern part of the country. Hundreds have also died in Nepal and Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, rains are the heaviest they’ve been in 100 years.

Climate scientists have been quick to explain that climate change is indeed to blame, increasing the likelihood and severity of extreme events.

In the UK, this year’s summer storms have been modest in comparison, yet still enough to cause flash flooding – in Scarborough, for example, where 73% of August’s rainfall fell in just over an hour, flooding homes and businesses.

Flood cover image

Flood cover image

Ten years ago it was very different, as the unprecedented summer 2007 floods wreaked havoc across swathes of Britain. Across the land, catastrophes were barely averted: dams nearly collapsed; critical power infrastructure was swamped and tens of thousands of homes were inundated. Thirteen people died. It led to a rare thing: concerted, government-led action through a commission headed by Sir Michael Pitt. His review, published roughly a year later, set out wide-ranging recommendations aimed at ensuring that the UK was never again found so wanting; so close to disaster. So, 10 years on, have those recommendations been acted on?

Early warning

A key recommendation concerned early warning and preparedness, and the Environment Agency has made great strides in this area. Putting communities back into the heart of decision-making was another, and that too has been embraced, in a way. Certainly they are more engaged; but then they need to be: the introduction of the Partnership Funding model for flood defences has meant that defence and resilience schemes now generally only progress if an element of private cash can be found.

It’s hard to argue against it, really. Because cash, despite decent investment from government, is still never going to be near enough to protect everyone. In the UK there are more than 2.44M properties at risk of flooding from rivers and the sea, another 3M more at risk from surface water flooding, and countless more at risk from sewer flooding. And there is no hiding it – these numbers are set to increase in future due to population growth and climate change.

It remains one of the biggest elephants in the room when it comes to infrastructure prioritisation and investment. There are many other priorities. And it is an investment that is easy to ignore. Until you get hit like Houston.

  • Mark Hansford is New Civil Engineer’s editor

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