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Water: Flooding lessons must be learned

Geoff French

At the start of this year, I watched ICE vice president David Balmforth being interviewed on BBC TV news, discussing the need to adopt a new approach to flood risk management - a more holistic approach that isn’t solely reliant on conventional defences but looks to build the resilience of our communities and stand them in good stead for the longer term.

He also made the point that there is no “silver bullet” solution here - different local environments require different and often a combination of solutions, so flexibility is vital.

Since then, the debate in the national media, and indeed in NCE, has swung and swerved around numerous potential solutions - from SuDs, dredging, more investment in defences and maintenance, right through to working better with nature and shifting to upstairs living. Unfortunately, it has also become mired in a political blame game, which the Institution has rightly steered away from to uphold its impartiality. 

Where new development is proposed for flood risk areas, resilience must be at the heart of the design - not an afterthought

Now, seven weeks later the ICE is again being asked by the media to talk about what we need to do differently to improve our resilience and manage this type of event more effectively in the future. The debate, sadly, has come full circle - as indeed it did back in 2000, 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2013 - and will again unless progressive action is taken.

Yes, the severity and relentlessness of the events seen in the past weeks are extremely challenging to plan for, but lessons must be learned - and implemented - from previous events and from response exercises such as the 2011 Exercise Watermark, undertaken to test the coordination and preparedness of the multiple actors involved in responding to a severe flood scenario.

Instead, as the flood waters subside and other issues step into the news and political limelight, the impact of the flooding is too often quickly forgotten by decision makers until the next crisis strikes. Clearly short-termism sits at the heart of the response to this event, and others like it.

The ICE and its members, along with members of other professional institutions, can make a difference; ensuring that within our profession the impact is not forgotten and the view we take on flood risk management is for the long term.

Flooding review

In 2007, the ICE worked in collaboration with other institutions to lead the debate and assist Sir Michael Pitt in delivering his review of flooding. The Inter Institutional Flooding Group has continued to act as a coherent unit since then, emphasising the need for joined up, long term thinking and collaboration around flood risk management.

Politicians must think beyond the comforting blanket of a ‘silver bullet’- and we , as members of a learned body, must both foster that change in approach, and help to inform society about what they can do themselves to increase their resilience.   

We must better understand the impacts on other areas of infrastructure and how, if these weather events are to become more frequent, we can adapt our infrastructure and mitigate the impact.

We have witnessed the devastating impacts on the rail and road network -resulting in Devon and Cornwall effectively being cut off from the rest of the country. And thousands have been without power. The ICE’s forthcoming State of the Nation: Infrastructure report will address the interdependencies between our infrastructure assets.

Flood risk management should also be viewed as part of the wider planning of new development and regeneration schemes. Opportunities to embed sustainable drainage systems (Suds) into new buildings and retrofit them into existing buildings, should be taken seriously.   And we must consider very carefully how and where we plan new development.

Where new development is proposed for flood risk areas, resilience must be at the heart of the design - not an afterthought.

This of course requires cooperation across the multiple agencies involved in water management - not just those who have a statutory duty.

I know we have the expertise and the will to drive forward the right solutions and show we’re in it for the long haul - and of course, we stand ready to assist the government and local authorities as we did in 2007 and have done in previous flooding reviews.

  • Geoff French is President of the ICE

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