The debate on approaches to flood risk management has embraced the idea that traditional solutions can be complemented, but not replaced, by natural flood management techniques.
Media interest in natural flood management was sparked by the flooding of winter 2013/14 that wreaked havoc across many parts of the UK. Many different aspects of the way we manage flood risk were questioned - there were calls for stronger government leadership and for better coordination of land management subsidies; as well as a questioning of the traditional emphasis on engineered solutions.
The UK’s approach to flood risk management has traditionally focused on interventions such as draining wetlands, dredging and straightening river channels, reclaiming salt marshes, and building walls to reduce the impact of flooding. These are now seen to be not the only answer to reducing flood risk and mitigating the impacts of climate change. Over the last few years, there has been a greater emphasis on developing more sustainable ways of managing catchments, with changes to land use being made to reduce flood risk to people, property and the environment.
“Slowing the flow” works with nature, retaining more water in upstream and middle catchments and slowing its passage downstream. Techniques include constructing earth embankments, “leaky ponds”, restoring more natural river channels, blocking moorland drains, planting riparian woodland, and introducing woody debris dams into watercourse.
The debate on approaches to flood risk management has embraced a growing recognition that traditional solutions can be complemented, but not replaced, by natural flood management techniques. The debate has also highlighted the importance of exploring and harnessing the role nature can play in strengthening resilience to climate change.
Natural flood management uses natural processes and landscape management to tackle flood risk in a relatively sustainable and often cost-effective way. This approach also delivers multiple benefits for improved biodiversity, carbon sequestration, improved soil management, landscape improvements and public health. The concept isn’t new, and has been slowly gaining recognition following recent Government initiatives. But it remains relatively marginalised and still isn’t a full part of business as usual. Demonstration projects are showing the way, but it has been a slow process to encourage the addition of natural flood management measures to complement and improve resilience. Securing funding for often long-term, catchment-wide initiatives, working with many landowners and stakeholders, can be a difficult process. There are many different funding mechanisms, but they can be contradictory, complex, difficult to access, and limited in investment capacity. This means in many instances that the tendency remains to opt purely for hard engineering solutions to deliver a more rapid and certain response to reducing flood risk for our communities.
There are a growing number of exemplar projects – for instance, at Pickering, Belford, Holnicote, and now “Hills to Levels” in Somerset Levels – which have demonstrated that slowing the flow can work.
However, these projects have also clearly shown how securing funding for this approach can limit the evolution of natural flood management into part of business as usual. But flood risk investment from Government has not been the mainstay of these projects. For example, the Hills to Levels programme is funded by a grant from the People’s Postcode Lottery. This admirable initiative is to be applauded, but the funding needs to develop, and implement natural flood management across the catchments needs to be secured from a wider base of investment streams.
Ideally, the way forward would enable investment by individuals, charities, businesses and government into natural flood management catchment solutions in a way that recognises the combination of private benefit and public good that these flood management solutions deliver. There are useful steps in place already, such as the recently strengthened Countryside Stewardship, but a simpler, more viable and easy to access approach to targeted funding schemes would help make natural flood management become par for the course.
- Katherine Pygott is Peter Brett Associates’ director of water management and was speaking this week at NCE’s Flood Management Summit in London.