Flooding dominated the agenda this week, with readers having their say on the government’s response and potential future solutions.
Your excellent Comment “Engineering judgement please, not political hysteria” quite rightly urges the engineering community to offer judgement, professionalism and a long-term vision for infrastructure improvements to combat flooding and warns against developing knee-jerk answers (NCE 6 February). Your call for a reasoned and dispassionate response from the engineering community is spot on.
I would go further. We must be prepared to shout passionately about the best technologies we can offer to help tackle the complex engineering challenges posed by climate change. As the recent blanket coverage of flooding has shown, engineering and technology can sometimes be viewed with suspicion.
As a product manufacturer, I run the risk of being accused of making a sales pitch. But I am proud of the technologies my company has taken more than 30 years to develop and refine. They are quietly protecting thousands of people from flooding every day.
I hope the entire engineering community, led by the excellent work of institutions like the ICE, can put forward a case for best engineering combined with continued technological innovation.
- Alex Stephenson, director, stormwater division, Hydro International
Rarely can an article extolling the benefits of fibre reinforced polymer (FRP) composites (Opinion, 6 February) have been followed by such a dramatic practical illustration.
In November 2012, a replacement FRP bridge deck was opened at Brunel’s Grade II listed Dawlish station. The new bridge, designed by Tony Gee & Partners and sub-consultant Optima Projects, is a virtual replica of its predecessor. Despite the effects of recent storms pounding the lightweight structure with the actions of wind, waves and projectiles, as the adjacent beach went airborne, the bridge did not blow away and is apparently undamaged.
Why are all similar bridges in exposed coastal locations not built of these durable, cost-effective materials? The UK has the knowledge and expertise to design and manufacture them, now we have the dramatic evidence to convince any remaining doubters of their durability.
- Neil Farmer (F), email@example.com
I would like to draw attention to the general media insistence on a “balanced” debate on climate change and other environmental issues, in which the climate change case is frequently overwhelmed by the “certainty” of the opposing voice claiming that there is “no evidence”. This follows the plethora of letters about the current extraordinary flooding problems, and two letters deploring the recent article by Bernard Ingham (NCE 30 January). This is the battle of tobacco and cancer all over again but with far higher stakes.
In this context I would like to compliment ICE vice president David Balmforth, who appeared on Radio 4 and produced the most confident and authoritative support for the reality of climate change and its impact that I have heard.
It can’t be a coincidence that Lord Lawson quickly appeared on a subsequent programme, again to deny that there was any evidence of climate change.
There seems to be a cohort of influential, mainly Conservative, supporters and ministers who are frequently given airtime to trot out their denials. In the face of this, it is important that all engineers and scientists respond promptly to refute all such claims in the strongest possible terms wherever they encounter them.
- Jim Malpuss (M), firstname.lastname@example.org
Further to your Comment in respect of engineering judgement, I refer to remarks made by prime minister David Cameron during his news conference on the floods response. He stated that the government is “cash rich” and will do everything in its power to assist in the relief and clean-up operations in the flood affected areas.
And so it should. The past four winters have included prolonged periods of weather which have instigated hundreds of millions of cold weather payments to non-means tested beneficiaries. And local authorities have spent hundreds of millions in treating iced roads and/or ploughing snow. The railways, too, have been involved in high cost maintenance.
This winter has so far thrown up mild and extremely wet conditions, which have obviated the needs for any of the cold weather costs described above. And yet the unrelenting rains have caused far more lasting and long-term damage in general than a cold snap with snow and ice.
The lack of cold has created a double saving both at central government and local levels. Yet the local authorities sit on their hands and bleat about having no money to deal with their flood related costs.
Surely, there could be no more opportune moment for the civil engineering profession to intervene. Career politicians at local and national levels are mere bureaucrats, mostly naive in civil engineering technology.
The ICE has 12 regional branches. It is overdue that panels of civil engineers are established in each branch to provide the indispensable area expertise to be called upon by their local authority when the needs arise, as is so evident in the current devastation.
- Vincent Hill (TM), email@example.com
Whether man-made or natural, our climate has changed and we should prepare for the future. Contamination of rain/flood-water with sewage is a major problem. Separate collection systems will eliminate contamination and avoid health risks.
Regular planned maintenance of road drainage, storm networks, ditches, culverts, streams and rivers will reduce the risk of flooding. New SuDS designs will contribute to flood reduction; they should also be implemented retroactively in high risk areas.
Protecting economically valuable land requires a Dutch approach. The UK is too small a country to abandon or prohibit the use of large areas: defensive barriers will be necessary. Nationwide measures such as these will support long-term economic growth whilst safeguarding people, communities, business and services.
The cost of an essential long-term protection programme will require governments to reduce national debt levels, prioritise budget expenditures and fund local authorities as appropriate for the high risk areas.
- Robert Bridges, 36 Naylors Terrace, Belmont, Bolton BL7 8AP
You call for engineers to “think outside the box” in the face of the current physical challenges facing this country (Comment, 6 February). I support this and want to see us as a profession starting to take the initiative.
I appreciate the wish of many of us to gain greater appreciation and status, but we have to earn this. As civil engineers it is our responsibility to provide the technical support and solutions required by the population we serve. At present they are frightened by the threats and damage caused by unparalleled weather to homes, transport links and power supplies yet all they see on the enormous TV coverage is the vision of politicians arguing that is was not their fault. While I can appreciate that there is a great need for immediate action, there is also an even greater need for people to get reassurance that there are longer term plans.
This is where our institution should be taking the lead by issuing clear positive statements spelling out the technical alternatives and opportunities. We should not just be seen as the “engineering chaps who carry out the instructions of others”.
With the enormous challenges to all aspects of this country’s infrastructure there are opportunities for our profession to show its worth by providing positive and realistic help to the population.
- John Payne (M ret), firstname.lastname@example.org
I am sure I am not the only engineer who has gone through various states of disbelief, bemusement and damn right anger listening to the news in recent weeks, as our politicians undo the marvellous work the Environment Agency has carried out in recent years for political gain. Looking on the positive side though, what a wonderful platform this presents for our great institution to get in the news and show what our engineers do.
So after hearing another sound bite from a faceless politician on the radio I went in search of reasoned opinion. Google News was my starting point and I entered “Institution of Civil Engineers”.
Several articles about flooding were listed but none mentioned the ICE. The only one which got close quoted three prominent engineers from academia but described them as scientists. Never mind, I thought, I will go to the ICE website, there’s bound to be something there. But, alas all I found in the “ICE in the News” section was article dating back to July 2013 and a single press release on the floods which was nearly six weeks old.
Our institution must do better but we must all do our bit and not stay silent. Prior to the Great Stink of the 1850s and the implementation of Bazalgette’s masterplan, Michael Farady called on civil engineers to rise up and be heard; “where are ye, ye civil engineers, ye can remove mountains, bridge seas and fill rivers but……..”. I implore all fellow civil engineers to get our message heard outside our own circles, be it Twitter, letters to MPs or the quality press. It is not just our own futures which depend on this.
- Andy Stanford (F), email@example.com
I was impressed by all the trenchant views expressed in NCE last week about the flooding problems in the Somerset levels; but unfortunately these were only read by less than 1% of the population. So where was the engineering expert to counter the fatuous, politically motivated and technically incompetent views expressed by Eric Pickles on the Andrew Marr Show? Why isn’t the ICE publicly calling for Pickles’ resignation?
- Peter Jones (M), 25 St David’s Crescent, Llanfaes, Brecon LD3 8DP
- Editor’s note: We have had many letters asking what the ICE’s response has been to the floods. ICE President Geoff French sets out the position here.
Politicians playing expert on floods
As long as I can remember almost every incoming President of the ICE has pledged to raise the public perception of engineers with little visible success.
The present furore over flooding is now likely to set us back many years. Even a former president (with clear vested interest) has joined the debate using the Somerset Levels as a wholly inappropriate case for more investment.
Politicians are suddenly experts in flood risk management who accuse the Environment Agency of having the wrong policies and causing all this misery. This is based on a totally misguided and inaccurate view that dredging in the Somerset Levels would have prevented the flooding which has flooded just 40 homes. In summer 2012, 950 homes in the Upper Calder Valley were flooded. Where was the instant additional government cash and the national outcry then?
Ian Liddell-Grainger says that the Environment Agency should follow the lead of Holland in protecting our vulnerable areas, many of which are land reclaimed from the sea (NCE 6 February). Such policies require massive government backing to be put into practice. What do we have? A partnership funding system where the government continues to provide woefully inadequate financing with flood risk management authorities expected to get out there with the begging bowl to find the rest.
Commitment of billions to projects like High SpeedS2 and the Thames Tideway are not in question, but when the government’s meagre support to flood risk management proves to be inadequate, all of sudden it is the professionals’ fault when the infrastructure cannot cope.
- Howard Glenn (M), firstname.lastname@example.org
Best practice on proofing homes against floods
Watching the flooding from the safety of my Edinburgh home I feel very lucky not to be caught up in the flooding problems of the south.
I suggest that we (civil and structural engineers) try to pool our intellectual resources and experience to put forward a method of repairing homes that are flooded and minimise the future impact if it happens again.
Just simply waiting for it to dry out then replacing everything would be fine if it’s unlikely to happen again. However, where there is a chance that it can happen again then instead of just replacing the timber floor replace it with a concrete floor.
All services should be fed top down and sockets should be much higher. Wall finishes should be water resistant to a height of 1.2m. These are just a few of the things that could be done.
Insurers would welcome this approach as it hopefully would lead to smaller claims in the future.
Also we could prepare a recommendation document for the future protection of dwellings in areas where flooding could occur, giving recommendations on how to keep the water out.
- Jim McColl (M), email@example.com
Build a tunnel to the coast
Clearly the solution to free the Thames Valley of flooding in the future will be a substantial project(s). Present solutions appear to be at ground level and will result in considerable disruption and dare I say controversy.
Would a tunnel from the river to the south coast provide the necessary relief? The parameters could be a distance of 80km, and a head differential of 35m.
From last week’s article on the Lee Tunnel (NCE 13 February), it would seem that a substantial tunnel may cost £20M/km; so for £1.6bn we may have a solution. I trust that a hydraulics expert will provide the basic answer.
Spoil, certainly from the south end, could be used to secure vulnerable coastline. Also a hydroelectric facility could be incorporated into the design which would operate in a flow range from, say, normal to excessive.
- George Muir (M) firstname.lastname@example.org
DIY skills better than sandbags
I am constantly surprised that sandbags appear to be the only emergency solution routinely recommended to prevent domestic flooding.
I grew up in a house by the tidal part of the Thames that was regularly at risk of flooding on high tides and surges before the Thames Barrier was built. My father (who was a MICE) had a simple solution to the problem. He rolled out a sausage of Plasticine to act as a seal and nailed timber boards across the frame of the front door. This usually did the trick.
Surely there are plenty of people with DIY skills who could cut timber to fit over their doors and airbricks and with the aid of modern tools and materials simple but effective protection could be applied in the same amount of time that it takes to get sandbags.
- Charles Taylor (AM), Greysmead Lodge, Thame, Oxfordshire OX9 3PL
Politicians don’t know best
The article by Ian Liddell-Grainger illustrates perfectly why technically competent people find it so difficult to work with politicians. From his opening with a crass and inappropriate illustration, he proceeded to attack the Environment Agency. At no time did he present any justification for his attack beyond the consequences of a pattern of weather that is without precedence.
Undermining the position of the Environment Agency will not achieve anything. The people who work for the Agency are experienced and qualified. They are the best placed to analyse, present, and deliver a solution we can afford. What they need from the politicians is support and funding.
- David Williams, Holworth House, Holworth, Dorchester DT2 8NJ
Levels need mix of measures
I agree entirely with your observations about the need for engineering judgement in assessing the appropriate way to address flood risk (Comment 6 February), and our organisation has been trying hard to concentrate minds on the facts and evidence. The solution in Somerset is a package of measures that will need to include dredging but also adaptation and resilience measures.
Part of that adaptation/resilience could be raising some roads and, when tested by benefit cost assessment relating to the costs of diversion, we will have a better idea if it is viable.
- Nick Stevens, clerk to the Axe Brue and Parrett Drainage Boards and chief executive to the consortium, 1 Church Street, Highbridge, Somerset TA9 3AE
Pumps prove vital on Levels
The benefits of dredging in Somerset are minimal unless they are also supported by bigger pumps downstream. This is a simple case of the difference between volume and conveyance. Dredging will increase channel capacity (volume) but this will be filled up quickly unless there is adequate pumping (conveyance) to take excess water away. The main issue in Somerset is that the pumps downstream just don’t have capacity, which is why the Environment Agency has called in extra pumps to help.
Ultimately though, there is a lot more to this as climate change (or just the UK weather) and catchment management all play a part.
- Simon Gilliland, Station House, Mercury Court, Tithebarn Street, Liverpool L2 2QP
A county for summer only
Somerset was so named as a place which was inhabited during the summertime, since in past centuries it was mainly flooded over during winter months. The government needs to be honest with the electorate that fighting nature is not always viable or sustainable.
- Peter Mason, email@example.com
- NCE welcomes letters from readers. We attempt to print as many as possible, which means letters longer than 200 words are likely to be condensed. Send your views and opinion to: The Editor, NCE, Telephone House, 69-77 Paul Street, London, EC2A 4NQ; email: firstname.lastname@example.org