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Water, water everywhere

Viewpoint - The Environment Agency says we must all face up to the increased risk of severe flooding due to man-made climate change.

The Environment Agency spends £300M a year on managing £20bn of flood-risk assets protecting £200bn of property and land from regular flooding.

Of this, it invests £120M a year on building new assets and replacing or improving the existing ones.

The agency operates more than 3,300 asset systems. These cover 38,400km of watercourse and coast. An asset system is a group of assets such as walls, outfalls, etc, that work together to protect a benefit area such as a town or village. There are more than 250,000 assets on the agency's National Flood and Coastal Defence database (NFCDD).

Each asset system is categorised in terms of the benefit area it serves as high, medium or low-risk. Each system is assigned a target condition based on engineering judgement. The assets in the highrisk systems are visually inspected every six months and given a condition rating of very good, good, fair, poor and very poor. These ratings then determine the overall rating for the asset system. The condition of the asset system can then be compared with the target condition and money allocated at a national level to bring high-risk systems back up to their target condition as a first priority.

This approach to asset management is a risk-based one.

Judgements have to be made on how much to spend on inspecting and assessing the condition of 250,000 assets and how much to spend on maintaining them and creating new ones. Are you safe if you live behind a defence in a system not in its target condition? We can never guarantee safety. Our assessments on the target and actual conditions are engineering judgements based on visual inspection.

We only provide protection to a standard and many defences over the past two weeks were overtopped because their design standard was exceeded rather than they structurally failed before reaching the design standard.

In autumn 2000, less than 1% of flooding was caused by the failure of defences. It is too early to say what the picture is from the last two weeks.

The government's 2004 Foresight Report on future flooding posed three questions.

Should we: accept increasing levels of flood risk; seek to maintain risks at current levels or seek to reduce the risks of fl ooding? The economic, social and environmental well-being of the nation is at risk in the face of climate change. Under such an attack from the elements, our defences and the skills of our engineers will be tested and engineering judgements questioned.

Defending the realm is a national responsibility no matter what the source. The whole resources of the state will be needed and at the heart of this will be its people. We may be the cause of climate change but we are also the solution. Mitigation is increasingly essential but adaptation is the here and now. We welcome the government's announcement this week of extra funding.

This extra money will bring relief and greater security to many people.

David Rooke is head of flood risk management at the Environment Agency.

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