Given the events following Storm Desmond the need to reassess flood risk assumptions is clear – so that the right investments are made in the future and so the public better understands the problem
Record flood levels in Carlisle this weekend exceeded previous high water marks by half a metre. Two, once in a lifetime storms have taken place in six years. With over 5 million homes in the UK at some risk of flooding, the events following Storm Desmond highlight that UK flood authorities urgently need to recalibrate weather and river system models to better reflect the impacts of climate change.
With the failure of critical infrastructure including the local electricity grid in Lancaster and the West Coast Mainline, the impact of the storm has extended well beyond the individual tragedies of the families and local businesses that will be clearing out flooded properties this week. Flood risk is a national economic problem which needs a national response.
There have been immediate calls for increased spending – which are likely to prove to be justified. However, how would the investment be prioritised? the scale of the risk evidenced by the ferocity of Storm Desmond does beg the question as to whether any amount of spending can reduce flood risk to reasonable levels or whether UK policy should increasingly focus on resilience and ‘living with water’. Flood waters in Carlisle have dispersed more slowly as a result of new flood defences, prolonging the agony for residents and illustrating the complexity of issues associated with flood mitigation.
After the Somerset Floods in 2014, an All Party Parliamentary Group facilitated by the CIC examined a wide range of issues connected with flood risk – observing that the UK has the most disconnected water management system in the world. Many of the findings focused on new development, particularly housing, and how a U-turn on sustainable drainage policy means that opportunities to make these developments more resilient to flooding are being foregone.
Given the events following Storm Desmond only 18 months later, the need to reassess flood risk assumptions is clear – so that the right investments are made in the future and so the public better understands the problem. This must be completed quickly – not only for the sake of people already living in known flood-risk areas – but also to ensure that urgently needed new housing is resilient in the face of an increasingly unpredictable climate change threat.
Simon Rawlinson is head of strategic research and insight at Arcadis UK