The scenes from Cumbria of lives, homes and businesses turned upside down by the power of flood water seem horribly familiar.
And key questions must remain in the minds of the public and professionals whether anything could have been done to prevent it. The wrong answer right now is “no”. It is the logical, comfortable engineering answer but it is not what anyone needs to hear.
Because clearly we understand how water flows. We can model rainfall scenarios very effectively and we have even got a range of quite detailed flood prediction maps available for every part of the UK.
“How much are we, as a society, prepared to spend, and critically, how much are we actually prepared to do to meet this aspiration?”
So, while we cannot ever expect to control the rainfall, we can accurately predict it and there are a multitude of things that could have been done to mitigate and adapt to the conditions seen last week.
But that said, it is appropriate to then ask how much are we, as a society, prepared to spend, and critically, how much are we actually prepared to do to meet this aspiration.
As we heard at last week’s NCE Flood Management conference, the likelihood of major flood events, such as was just witnessed in Cumbria, is on the increase.
Climate change, urban hardscaping, flood plain development and changes in agricultural techniques have all conspired to increase the numbers now at risk from flooding to around one in six properties in the UK.
Yet as we were also reminded at the conference, no one who has been flooded out of their home or business is interested in whether it was fluvial, coastal or surface water flooding.
“No one who has been flooded out of their home or business is interested in whether it was fluvial, coastal or surface water flooding.”
We must answer the questions being asked of us and bend our minds from the world of probability and risk management to address the real issues of protection raised by politicians and the population.
And yes this is an issue for central government. We must see the promised legislation to drive through Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations from 2007 and we must see the amount of money invested in flood management and defence continue to rise every year.
As the ICE’s report on defending the UK’s critical infrastructure pointed out: “Failure to maintain and protect our critical infrastructure will leave us potentially vulnerable.”
But alongside we must also make the case for − and design for − the equally important social and lifestyle changes that must enable communities of the future to accept and accommodate flooding as a natural part of life.
That will mean changes to housing and community design, it will mean embracing sustainable drainage solutions and it will mean investment to make property and infrastructure more robust. It will mean being ready for the inevitable. And may even mean moving whole communities.
Because alongside investment in our more tradition defences, these changes will be at the heart of helping the nation to adapt and live with − rather than in spite of − the changing climate.
- Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor