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Flooding in the UK Highlights the Need for Resilient Cities

By: Alicia Smith

Massive wave crashing into the sea wall at Ilfracombe, North Devon. Photo courtesy of Paul Grover/Telegraph.

Massive wave crashing into the sea wall at Ilfracombe, North Devon. Photo courtesy of Paul Grover/Telegraph.

This January was the wettest winter recorded in the UK in 250 years highlighting the need for increased storm and flood protection. Gales and tidal surges battered the coast, leaving whole villages under water, crumbling coastal cliffs, eroding beaches and sand dunes, and breaching river banks. The western and southern areas of the UK were the hardest hit and were still saturated after six weeks of heavy rainfall.

The severe weather forced the Environmental Agency to issue its first 2014 red weather warning in February, as strong winds were predicted to reach 100mph. The storms left tens of thousands of homes without power and caused flooding in the Thames Valley, breaking banks along a nearly 62 mile stretch from Oxford to Kingston, in Greater London.In addition, groundwater flooding has been an issue as a result of soil saturation.

By 2050 the frequency of severe flooding across Europe is expected to double, causing potentially a five-fold increase in annual economic losses due to flood damage. Climate change and increase in rainfall are expected to result in a third of the losses, while properties and infrastructure lying in flood prone areas account for the rest.

Given the recent storms, experts from 17 environmental and planning organizations including ecologists, landscape architects, engineers and hydrologists have asked the government to address flooding by creating a flood defense policy for the future. According to one environmental professional, “water management techniques could have helped prevent the effects of flooding on villages, towns and over surrounding land seen recently. Emergency measures are in order for the immediate crisis. But in the long term, the management of water requires a clear strategy.” This could include the use of forestry and land management to hold back the water in the uplands, as well as dredging in the lowlands.

While some protective measures are in place, there are concerns that they are not strong enough to protect against higher frequency and severity storms. The Thames Barrier was built after the flood of 1953, when a surge in the North Sea killed more than 300 people. Today, it still functions as a protective barrier for central London and protects more than 1 million people and £200bn in property values, including historic landmarks and the Underground.

Thames Barrier protects London during high tides. Can it withstand future higher frequency and severity storms? Image courtesy of Halcow.

Thames Barrier protects London during high tides. Can it withstand future higher frequency and severity storms? Image courtesy of Halcow.

Twice a day, the incoming tide from the North Sea rushes towards the ten 3,300 ton steel gates of the Barrier, where water levels can rise and fall by 30 feet. The Barrier prevented catastrophic damage during the December 2013 storm surge-the largest in 60 years,  however rising sea levels are a serious threat. A global study recently concluded there is a 1 in 20 risk that the existing Thames Barrier would not be able to withstand a severe storm event

Flooded London if  Thames Barrier did not exist.  Image courtesy of the Environmental Agency.

The potential effects on central London if there was no barrier during the December 2013 storm surge – the largest in 60 years.
Image courtesy of the Environmental Agency.

Large metropolitan cities, such as London and New York are still struggling to protect themselves from storm surges, severe flooding, and sea-level rise. Hard structures, such as sea walls are effective barriers, but have high costs and can cause have detrimental impacts to the environment. Over the past decade, government policy in the UK largely focused on the widening and dredging of riverbeds to allow the water to flow downstream, however, many are now suggesting other alternatives. Natural buffers, such as tidal marshes, coastal wetlands, barrier islands and other natural ecosystems can provide protection against sea-level rise. Other approaches,  including “rewilding” or planting trees in upland floodplains to hold back and slow down water has been proposed by leading scientists. Projects that work to create a dynamic interface between built and natural buffers are needed worldwide, requiring a multi-disciplinary approach with many organizations involved as well as the political leadership and will to create more resilient cities, coastlines, and agricultural areas.

 

References:
Carrington, Damian. January Was England’s Wettest Winter Month in Almost 250 Years. The Observer. Guardian News and Media, 02 Feb. 2014.
Connor, Steve. Frequency of Severe Flooding across Europe ‘to Double by 2050′. The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 2 Mar. 2014.
Flooding And Erosion Damage Across The UK. Sky News. N.p., 21 Feb. 2014.
Floods Crisis: Is London in Danger? Channel 4 News. Channel 4 News, 10 Feb. 2014.
Harrabin, Roger. Lord Rooker: ‘Planting Trees Could Stop Flooding’. BBC News. BBC News, 23 Jan. 2014.
Marsden, Sam, and Peter Dominiczak. David Cameron Must Lead Planning Revolution to Prevent Future Floods, Say Experts. The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 30 Feb. 2014.
Siddique, Haroon, and Matthew Weaver. Red Weather Warnings Issued as 100mph Winds Head towards UK. Theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media, 12 Feb. 2014.
The Government Needs to Call in the Flood Experts. The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 21 Feb. 2014. Web.
UK Storms: Mapping the Floods. BBC News. BBC News, 14 Feb. 2014. Web
UK Storms: Homes Left without Power and Travel Disrupted. BBC News. N.p., 13 Feb. 2014.

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